How the Maple Leafs managed to find their way

TORONTO — Almost inexplicably, the Toronto Maple Leafs are back on equal footing with the Boston Bruins.

Twice the Leafs were curled up, trembling, left to unpack the grim realities attached to falling behind two games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. First it was the consequence of their complete no-show in Boston, a two-game set in which they appeared far more outmatched than the 12-4 aggregate score would suggest. Then they returned to the hole they dug themselves for a second time after Game 4 when they failed to take advantage of Patrice Bergeron’s surprise absence.

And yet somehow, they came out on a top in a third, mostly shaky performance in Boston. And then in the return leg Monday night in Toronto, they delivered their most convincing effort in the series so far, triumphing 3-1 to force an improbable Game 7 — the only one we’ll see in the first round.

Even on the scorecards. And maybe now, perhaps in their minds, a nose ahead.

Here’s how the Maple Leafs found their way back:

Great Dane

Despite the heat on Auston Matthews at points in the series, since Toronto had its back pressed against the wall, the situation only really demanded brilliance from one Maple Leaf.

That burden belonged to Freddie Andersen.

As the walls were caving in around him in Boston on Saturday, Andersen stood tall with a sensational 42-save performance (which earned him ‘FRED-DY, FRED-DY’ chants before having to make a stop on Monday). Then in Game 6, which saw the opposition again own roughly two thirds of the total shot attempts, Andersen delivered a second indispensable effort, stopping 32-of-33 shots placed on target.

His highlight reel on Monday included a second magnificent paddle save made in the series, this one leaving scratched forward Josh Leivo to collect his jaw off the desk up in the press box.

All told, since the margin for error in the series was left razor thin, the Leafs have been outshot 78-51 and out-attempted 162-82.

Survival begins and ends with Andersen.

“He’s been our best player for a long time,” said Mitch Marner. “He’s always there for us, bails us out a lot. Without him we’re not having the success we’re having.

“He’s been phenomenal.”

Play to win

Maybe it was because the scoreboard read 4-1. Perhaps it didn’t matter at all.

Either way, the Leafs taking a one-goal lead into the third period in Game 6 was far from a comfortable position given how shook they seemed from the moment they secured a three-goal cushion two nights previous. Had they retreated in similar fashion, or given up anywhere close to the 53-17 shot attempt spread that Boston had in its Game 5 push, surely it wouldn’t yield the same result again.

But, to much surprise, the Maple Leafs’ best shift-to-shift stretch in the entire series came while protecting their one-goal lead Monday. Sure there was a push, but what the Bruins did to Toronto in Game 4 — cordoning off the high-danger area with devotion and organization while unafraid to mix in honest spurts of offence — the Maple Leafs were able to return in Game 6.

The difference?

“We took it to them a lot more,” Andersen described from his vantage point. “We controlled the neutral zone and they had trouble getting (the puck) in. I think that’s just a commitment to winning.”

“We don’t want to sit back,” Marner said. “We’re done with that.”

Shifting frustrations

With changes to the lineup (and his use of decoys in practice), Mike Babcock has been, at least at times, able to check Boston’s top line. Eventually though, whether it’s Tomas Plekanec, Nazem Kadri or Matthews having to wear the matchup, Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak eventually do start to tilt the ice in their favour. This was true again Monday, despite Babcock’s matchup control, as the trio each finished with over a 65 percent shot share.

But what has changed as the series has transitioned into deeper waters is the production of Bruce Cassidy’s top unit. After combining for 20 points in the first two games, the trio has had a hand in two goals in the four games since, with the banged-up Bergeron left off the board completely.

Most reflective of this dominant drought: Pastrnak counted 10 shot attempts himself in Game 6, but hit the target only once.

At the root of so much frustration for the Maple Leafs in the early stages of the series, Marchand in particular is beginning to wear the effects of being unable to contribute offensively. Slapping his stick and barking at officials, Marchand had his worst period of the entire series in the third Monday — while it was there for the taking.

Even with Kadri’s return to the lineup, Plekanec has been the essential component to slowing the top line — much like he was for many seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. He’s felt the frustration of Boston’s top players many times before and appears to be again however reluctant he is to admit it.

“I don’t pay attention to if they’re frustrated or not,” Plekanec said. “I’m just trying to focus on our game, on our system. Whatever they do, it’s not my business to watch that.”

M(arner)VP

There has been no more important decision from a lineup standpoint than Babcock’s deployment on the right side of his shutdown line.

Marner, whose listless performance as a rookie last spring had some questioning his value long term, has been, by far, the Maple Leafs’ best skater this time around.

Starting in his own end countless times, with Marchand lined up directly across, Marner has not just played a major role in helping seal the defensive end on a line with Plekanec and Patrick Marleau, but firmly swung the goals-for ratio in Toronto’s favour.

Preventing the Bruins from completely seizing control in Game 6 with the go-ahead marker in an isolated moment in the offensive end, then adding an assist on Plekanec’s empty-net marker, Marner now has a hand in one half of Toronto’s total output in the series with two goals and eight points in six games.

The secret?

“What he’s done at playoff time is put his work ahead of his skill,” Babcock said. “And he’s having success.”

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