Leafs vs. Bruins: Toronto misses chance for statement win before All-Star break

The Maple Leafs head into the All-Star break on a losing note after falling to the rival Bruins on Wednesday.

TORONTO — By the very nature of its design, there are few opportunities for statement games through an 82-game regular season. With the All-Star break on the horizon, the Toronto Maple Leafs were presented with a golden opportunity to make an imprint on the rest of the league, a chance to neatly cap off what’s been an excellent regular season to date against the league-leading Boston Bruins.

After a first period where Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov kept his club in the contest, Boston’s Linus Ullmark shut the door on the Maple Leafs, proving why he’s the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy. Ullmark made 33 saves as the Bruins utilized their team speed — particularly on the back end — and completely neutralized the Maple Leafs’ attack throughout the final frame for a 5-2 victory.

Derek Forbort took advantage of some poor defending to open the scoring shorthanded, Mitch Marner tied the game back up at 1-1 before Boston’s Brandon Carlo scored three minutes later. A.J. Greer quickly scored two minutes into the final frame for the Bruins and though Calle Jarnkrok would respond to cut the lead to 3-2, Pavel Zacha notched back-to-back insurance markers for the Bruins, effectively ending the game with nearly eight minutes remaining in the final frame.

This was a chance to knock off a juggernaut that was in the middle of a three-game losing streak, a chance to prove that the Maple Leafs could hold more than their own against a team that boasts Ullmark, along with runaway Selke favourite Patrice Bergeron and a lineup of high-end players that epitomize two-way responsibility. Toronto lost its nerve and was beaten soundly, despite outshooting Boston 35-29.

“They’re a team that puts themselves in a spot to win games and forces the opposition to chase it a little bit and when it opens up, they make you pay for it. That’s what happened here,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the Bruins post-game.

Here’s what you need to know from Maple Leafs-Bruins.

The Maple Leafs fell to the Bruins to head into the All-Star break on a losing note. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
The Maple Leafs fell to the Bruins to head into the All-Star break on a losing note. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports)

Three stars:

1. Linus Ullmark, Bruins

Ullmark has been a revelation for the Bruins. Every team in the league had a chance to acquire the former Sabres castoff in the summer of 2021, but he inked a four-year, $20-million deal with the Bruins that very well may be worth its weight in gold. During the first period, Ullmark and Samsonov appeared to be in an old-fashioned goaltending duel, before Toronto’s nominal starter blinked first and eventually capitulated under pressure.

Ullmark saved almost an entire goal above expected in all situations, snuffing out the danger when the Maple Leafs pushed themselves into prime shot locations. Toronto kept pushing the pace all game against a steady Boston team that has multiple players among the league leaders in expected goals against per 60, but Ullmark was the constant, robbing Pierre Engvall on the doorstep in the second period, while blanking Mitch Marner in the third.

Ullmark entered the game with a league-leading 1.90 goals-against average, 28.7 goals saved above expected and a sparkling .936 save percentage. The only person who wasn’t completely impressed by Ullmark’s performance was Keefe.

“He was solid. Their team defence really helps a lot,” Keefe said post-game.

2. Pavel Zacha, Bruins

There are several Bruins candidates to highlight, but we can’t ignore Zacha’s brace. After a relatively quiet opening two periods, Zacha came to life in the final frame. It wasn’t necessarily pretty — Zacha’s first goal occurred when TJ Brodie slipped and fell, creating an easy unimpeded shooting lane and Samsonov will likely regret missing the puck entirely with a clear view.

Zacha’s second goal was also the result of a comedy of errors from the Maple Leafs. Timothy Liljegren lost sight of the puck, Samsonov made the initial stop on Zacha, and the puck ricocheted onto Rasmus Sandin’s stick. Sandin skated into trouble then lost the puck to David Pastrnak on the wall. Pastrnak quickly moved it to a cutting David Krejci, who in turn found a wide-open Zacha at the side of the net.

It’s not always pretty, but it didn’t have to be, and Zacha finished with a game-high seven individual chances for.

3. Brandon Carlo, Bruins

Boston emphasized its team speed and structure pre-game and Carlo embodied this to a tee. Carlo and his partner, Hampus Lindholm, were steady presences for the Bruins and they were looking to contribute offensively wherever possible.

Carlo was robbed of a golden chance in the first period, but it wouldn’t take long for him to find the scoresheet. After Toronto’s fourth line was caught on a bad shift in its own zone, Carlo took a feed from Lindholm and beat Samsonov from a shaky angle.

“As long as we're sticking to our rules and playing within ourselves, making sure we move the puck up as fast as we can to our forwards,” Carlo told Yahoo Sports pre-game about how to neutralize the Maple Leafs. “A lot of things transition well with that. I think we need to be a little bit harder at the blue lines, eliminate that speed coming into our zone because that's obviously when they become pretty lethal.

When Carlo was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Bruins posted a 66.18 percent share of the expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. Carlo won the battle against a high-octane offence, added to the attack within the natural flow of the offence and posted a game-high five hits.

Off night: Rasmus Sandin and Morgan Rielly, Maple Leafs

This could’ve gone to a number of Maple Leafs but Rielly and Sandin are the main culprits. Both players committed four turnovers and didn’t generate enough offence to offset their mistakes. Rielly was on the ice for two goals, Sandin was on the ice for three. They got routinely pushed out of the way by the Bruins’ tenacious forecheck and appeared hesitant to head-man the puck throughout the night. This could’ve gone to Samsonov as well, but his stellar first period kept him out of this space tonight.

Play of the game:

It can’t be all bad for the Maple Leafs. Samsonov found Marner with a bullet outlet pass for his second assist of the season and his third helper of his career. Samsonov’s out of the frame, but he took advantage of a Bruins line change and helped his team briefly tie the game.

Misplay of the game:

Zacha’s second goal has already been discussed in detail, but we’ll go through it again. Brodie falls down, while William Nylander and Rielly are both found guilty of puck-watching, a recurring occurrence for Rielly throughout the contest.

Stat of the night:

Boston is in pretty exclusive company ahead of the break, boasting a league-best 39-7-5 record.

Going viral:

Seconds after A.J. Greer scored to give the Bruins a 3-1 lead, Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds decided to drop the gloves with him after the ensuing faceoff. Simmonds won the fight decisively, providing Scotiabank Arena with a brief reprieve.

Quote of the day:

Keefe, on the gap between the Maple Leafs and Bruins: "You guys have watched the games. Last time, we played them in their building, tied game, a few minutes left, it's a 2-1 game going into the third. The margins are thin. Over the course of the season, it's difficult to stay with it. They're 40 goals better than any team in the NHL. It's a significant gap between them and the rest of the league, when you look at the season in its entirety."

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