By DAVID SHOALTS
Monday, April 23, 2018
BOSTON -- The last thing anyone could ever say about Mike Babcock is he likes to fly by the seat of his pants.
Every move he makes is clinically analyzed a dozen different ways before a decision is reached.
The one exception is when the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves overmatched and in a hole.
Then the head coach is inclined to take his forward lines and defence pairs, toss them in the air and pick out new sets in the hope something works.
It worked in Game 5 on Saturday night - not perfectly of course, as the Leafs had to hang on by their fingernails for a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins to avoid a repeat of that famous blown 4-1 lead against the Bruins in the deciding game of their 2013 NHL playoff series. But it worked well enough for the Leafs to survive to play Game 6 in the firstround series back in Toronto on Monday night with the Bruins holding a 3-2 lead in the best-ofseven affair.
What worked best were two moves - Connor Brown sliding up the lineup to replace William Nylander at right wing on the top line beside Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman and putting centre Nazem Kadri between Andreas Johnsson and Nylander. Both Brown and Johnsson scored their first NHL playoff goals to help the Leafs establish a 4-1 lead and Brown was outstanding in helping kill off a five-on-three Bruins power play along with Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and goaltender Frederik Andersen.
The question going into Monday's game is whether Babcock sticks with what worked Saturday night in Boston, or returns to the familiar lines, or does he go back to drawing names out of a hat? "I'm not sure," Babcock said Sunday. "We're going to have the same people. I'm not sure we're going to have the same lineup. I have not decided for sure. Last change at home might make that different. I don't know for sure."
The home advantage of the last change allows him to assign Kadri, the shutdown centre for the regular season who missed three games in this series because of a suspension, to the Bruins' big line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Beating the Bruins is next to impossible if that line cannot be held to no more than two goals.
The Leafs also must hope Andersen's outstanding play in the 4-3 win was notice he discovered his game again after ordinary outings earlier in the series. And, perhaps most important of all, that everyone learned from Saturday's string of penalties, which started late in the second period almost from the moment the Leafs went up 4-1, to be a lot more disciplined on Monday. The Bruins' predatory power play is unlikely to be contained for two games in a row if they get six opportunities again.
There was a lot of kvetching by the Leafs about the officiating in this series, as the Bruins have had 17 power plays in five games to 10 for the Leafs.
"That's a real nice question.
You should ask me in the summer," was Babcock's response when someone asked what he thought of the referees. Defenceman Jake Gardiner, who was given a roughing penalty in the second period for an encounter with towering Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, got off a good line about the call.
"I guess I was the third guy in and then I hit Chara's fist with my face," Gardiner said. "That might've been the penalty. I'm not sure."
However, despite the Leafs' unhappiness and the uproar from their fans on social media about the referees, most of the calls were well-deserved. Gardiner, for example, was penalized because he jumped into a shoving match between Hyman and David Backes of the Bruins. That drew the attention of Chara and the Leafs were lucky the referees evened the penalty score by giving Backes a double-minor for roughing and single minors to Hyman and Gardiner.
The string of penalties kept the Leafs on their heels beginning late in the second period. This exhausted the penalty killers such as Hainsey and in turn left important players such as Matthews, Nylander and Mitch Marner on the bench too long.
"You're not involved in the game," Babcock said of the effect on some of his players. "What you've done is you take your team out of it, you've got no rhythm and now you get on your heels.
We've got to do a better job of staying out of the box."
Boston's Tim Schaller crumples after colliding with Leaf defenceman Travis Dermott, second from left, as Toronto won Game 5 of the series in Boston on Saturday. Toronto coach Mike Babcock is keeping his lineup options open for Monday's Game 6 in Toronto.
BOB DECHIARA/USA TODAY SPORTS