By DAVID SHOALTS
Saturday, April 14, 2018
BOSTON -- The Toronto Maple Leafs will be without Nazem Kadri for the next three games, a severe loss indeed, but that may be the least of their troubles.
If head coach Mike Babcock cannot figure out a way to use the alleged depth on his roster to rein in the line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, the Leafs' playoff series against the Boston Bruins is going to end quickly. And not well.
Kadri was suspended by NHL disciplinarian George Parros on Friday for his dangerous hit from behind to the head of Bruins forward Tommy Wingels in the third period of the Leafs' humiliating 5-1 loss to the Bruins in the series opener. This means the Leafs will be without their shutdown centre for both of their home games in the series, which limits Babcock's matchup options.
"It is important to note Kadri is in control of this hit at all times," an NHL spokesman said in the video explanation of his decision.
"Kadri has enough time to see Wingels is on his knees and in a defenceless position before committing to the hit.
"Instead of avoiding or minimizing this hit, Kadri drives his hip into Wingels upper body with enough force to cause Wingels to collide dangerously with the boards."
Wingels left the game after the hit and did not practice with the Bruins on Friday. His injury was not disclosed and his status is "questionable" for the second game on the series on Saturday, although not having Wingels on the ice made for nice optics ahead of the NHL hearing on the hit.
"[Saturday] we'll get a better read on him, but I'd say he's questionable for now," Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said. "I wouldn't rule him out, but we'll see in the morning."
The Leafs also practised a few hours before Parros held the Kadri hearing but Babcock was already prepared for the suspension. Kadri did not take part in the practice and Babcock shuffled his lines, moving Patrick Marleau from left wing to centre to replace Kadri. Zach Hyman dropped down from Auston Matthews's line to fill Marleau's usual spot at left wing beside Kadri and right winger Mitch Marner. Leo Komarov was promoted to left wing on Matthews's line and Andreas Johnsson will make his NHL playoff debut on the fourth line and the second power-play unit.
Kadri's absence is a solid blow to the Leafs. However, considering how he was running around during the first game - four minutes before he knocked Wingels out of the game Kadri was given a boarding penalty for another dicey hit, also on Wingels - there is a chance his absence may actually help the Leafs settle down a little.
But none of this will matter if the Leafs' other lines cannot find their legs. Bergeron and Marchand toyed with the Matthews line all night and the Leafs' other lines were just as invisible. Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk never created any offence that mattered and the fourth line - centre Tomas Plekanec, Komarov and Kasperi Kapanen - was downright scary every time it was on the ice.
Not even Babcock escaped having a bad night against the Bruins. His two most notable issues were not making a coach's challenge on the Bruins' first goal when it appeared Marchand was offside and having Plekanec's line on the ice in the final minute of the second period when they gave up a goal to give the Bruins a 3-1 lead.
In the first instance, Babcock said he did not challenge the Marchand goal because a video replay was not available in time and he did not want to risk getting a minor penalty if the challenge failed. It was not clear why the replay was not available until just as the puck dropped for the faceoff following the goal.
"That's disappointing. It's also on the coaching staff, not the players," Babcock said. "Obviously, it's offside, that part's disappointing. Usually when you know [the replay] is coming you can delay more. Then it was too late."
Babcock was asked if coaches have to wait until the replay is made available by the television networks broadcasting the game.
"That's a real good question," he said. "I don't know how it works either, but I know our guy knows how it works and he says it's been going on for a while and they've talked about it. I imagine there'll be more feeds over time but that was the feed we had last night.
"If you know for sure you can make the call, but two more seconds [and] we might have been able to get that right and that's a big deal in the game, obviously."
The other problem, getting caught with Plekanec's line on the ice late in the period, and not being able to get them off because of an icing call, was laid at the feet of the players. After Plekanec lost the faceoff in the Leafs zone, the Bruins' second line, which was almost as powerful as the Bergeron unit, cycled the puck easily with David Backes scoring the goal that essentially ended the game for the Leafs.
"I did that on purpose," Babcock said, "and it ended up in the back of our net. Because that's their job - to win that draw, then get it out, then get off the ice.
"You know, when you get paid to do certain things, that's your job, so it wasn't like I was avoiding that [matchup] at all. I thought that was a real good situation for us. You're supposed to start in your [defensive] zone and get us in the o-zone and get off the ice. That's their job."
Komarov's move to the Matthews line was an obvious sign Babcock plans to pay more attention to matchups on Saturday night. Cassidy is certain to play Bergeron against Matthews and Komarov and Marchand have long been mutual antagonists.
Marchand figuratively kissed off the Matthews line and literally kissed off Komarov when they bumped into each other in the first game. His peck on Komarov's cheek was all the rage on social media and Marchand described it as getting inside Komarov's head.
"Yeah, actually he kissed me earlier this season," Komarov said. "It is what it is. I'm playing hockey and that's it."
Komarov and his teammates also brushed off the notion Kadri's absence will cause problems. Matthews didn't see it as meaning there will be more focus on him and his linemates in the next game.
"I don't know. I think we have a lot of depth," Matthews said.
"Every line can score, every line can produce. So that's what we're looking for."
Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara shoves Leafs centre Nazem Kadri after the latter's late hit laid out Tommy Wingels. The injured Bruins centre was listed as questionable for Saturday's game.