TORONTO — It’s like they are programmed to exit the ice when the internal clock sounds. And together they shut off, and coast back to the bench.
First assembled with re-imagining all that was possible with the man advantage in mind, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ No. 1 power play unit has been without the freedom to achieve a potential only slightly distorted by preseason hyperbole.
It seems, more often than not, the unit has up until about the first change in possession to launch into their attacks. About a minute to operate, always. Even in the postseason.
Then after that, on cue, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and the postseason substitute for Nazem Kadri, Andreas Johnsson, cede to the second unit.
With it, head coach Mike Babcock is voluntarily reducing the threat level for the opposition.
The Maple Leafs are headed back to Boston to compete in a Game 7 for the second straight season and third time in seven springs after their 4-2 loss to the Bruins on Sunday afternoon.
It’s happening, in part, because that’s just how fate would have it. But also with one fundamental difference between how the Bruins and Maple Leafs staffs coach their teams in mind.
Forget shots, shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger looks and the ground the Maple Leafs have made up on the Bruins at even strength. The most damning statistic when digesting the Leafs’ failed chance to eliminate the Bruins is found when examining the time on ice for Boston on its two tries with the man advantage.
Five Bruins saw power-play ice — and each logged exactly two minutes and 24 seconds. You can only achieve that sort of seamless uniformity when you convert on your chances.
And how do the Bruins do that?
Not talent, and not necessarily superior tactics.
All they do is allow their best players to take all the time they need.
Boston scored its power-play goals 58 and 86 seconds into its two opportunities with the man advantage in Game 6 — and without even a glance back at the players’ bench from one of their stars.
With one directly off a faceoff and the second scored so deep into the man advantage, that alone offers reason to suggest that if given the same opportunities, the Leafs would have switched out their personnel.
By comparison, the Leafs’ power-play allotment from Game 6 is totally disproportionate from how it should look. For instance, five forwards wound up logging more time on the man advantage than Tavares and Marner, for the simple reason that they were pulled from the ice too quickly.
How Babcock and Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy divvy up the 15-30 transitional seconds in the middle of each power play, while totally granular, represents a key fundamental difference between the two teams, and maybe the reason why they will play the Game 7 scheduled for Tuesday night in Boston.
“If we’re feeling it, we always have the green light,” said defenseman Torey Krug, speaking about the freedom the No. 1 unit enjoys after being responsible for a power-play goal scored more than a minute and 30 seconds into a man advantage try.
Krug was quick to point out that Boston’s other unit had been just as effective and has maybe executed better to that point in the series, but explained that the Bruins don’t work on an internal clock.
They have the freedom to decide how much opportunity the second unit receives.
“Tonight we got back to our guns, and we were able to score.”
By converting on both chances with their backs against the wall Sunday after being denied in Game 5, the Bruins have now scored seven power-play goals in the series.
This alone has eliminated the 11-8 advantage that the Maple Leafs have worked so hard for at five-on-five.
With one more opportunity to earn just his fourth series victory in the last decade, Babcock’s performance will be scrutinized to the nth degree if the Leafs fall again in a Game 7 in Boston.
How he deploys his stars, especially with the man advantage, should be found at the forefront of that.
More NHL coverage on Yahoo Sports