Maple Leafs’ Stuff: Babcock, Marner, Game 7 History & More

It’s that time of the season. Once again the Toronto Maple Leafs are heading to a Game 7 to play their arch-rival Boston Bruins. Recent history suggests the Bruins will have an advantage because the Maple Leafs seem to crash and burn in Game 7 road contests.

For those who cover the Maple Leafs, there seems to be a lot to be critical about. Frankly, most of the Maple Leafs’ coverage has been negative.

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It’s been one of those series. Here’s a look at some of the buzz over the past two days following the Maple Leafs loss at home in Game 6.

Item One: Babcock’s Bad Choices

James Tanner of Editor in Leaf believes head coach Mike Babcock is making bad coaching choices in this series and must find better strategies. Tanner made a long list of things he believes Babcock is doing wrong.

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Why, for example, is the power play so stale when the Maple Leafs should have so much offensive skill?

Why does Babcock play the under-performing Patrick Marleau so much?

Why won’t Babcock replace Marleau and Connor Brown with Tyler Ennis and Trevor Moore?

Why doesn’t Babcock shorten his bench earlier in the game?

Why do John Tavares and Auston Matthews, who make so much money, sit so much after the team takes penalties?

Tanner’s ease at asking critical questions is basically calling out Babcock’s coaching. But then, so are many other Maple Leaf writers. You have to wonder what kind of fuel critics will have if the Maple Leafs actually lose this evening in Boston. It would be a long summer for “yesterday’s coach,” Mike Babcock.

Item Two: Cassidy Is Whining to the Officials

Emily Kaplan of ESPN reports that Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has asked officials to watch the Maple Leafs’ “skate-bumping.” Cassidy suggests that the Maple Leafs are employing a “feet contacting feet” strategy where the Maple Leaf skaters are “bumping” the Bruins players’ skates from behind.

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Cassidy notes ironically, “Whether it’s by accident or by design I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate.” That comment is like having someone come up to you to start a conversation by saying, “I don’t mean to be rude, but …” For sure you know rudeness is coming your way.

Of course, Cassidy doesn’t want to speculate: he wants to announce it. That’s the purpose of his verbal spin. In a series where the officiating has been spotty and, to most eyes, has gone the Bruins’ way, Cassidy wants it to continue.

In truth, NHL-assigned supervisors of officials are present at each NHL series. And, coaches are encouraged to dialogue with those supervisors about trends they see on the ice. However, I don’t think the NHL believed these conversations should be press announcements.

Boston Bruins Bruce Cassidy
Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy talks to his players during a timeout. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

But that’s what Cassidy has done. As Kaplan reports, Cassidy spoke publically about the concerns he’s raised with the NHL supervisor over the Maple Leafs’ “questionable tactics.” Cassidy said that Toronto players were bumping the back of Bruins skates “a lot.” Then Cassidy pondered aloud, “Whether it’s just dumb luck, or how they battle for pucks.”

What’s most interesting is that Cassidy even revealed a hidden storyline most fans didn’t know. In his words, because “there’s been a few of them (skate bumps) every game … that’s what I believe caused the (Jake DeBrusk/Nazem Kadri) battle.”

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That’s an interesting plot twist. The skate bumping caused Kadri to crosscheck DeBrusk to the head and DeBrusk to knee-on-knee Kadri. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

I’ve heard the Maple Leafs called lots of things – skilled, speedy, and under-achieving – but I’ve never (Ok, with the exception of Kadri) heard them called dirty players. It will be interesting to see how the officials respond to Cassidy’s public “not-speculating” about the Maple Leafs’ dirty play that they have missed.

Item Three: Where Has Mitch Marner Gone?

Adam Kaskaris of the Leafs Nation wonders where Mitch Marner went during this series. After a strong Game 1, when he scored two goals to help his team win, Kaskaris suggests Marner’s slowed down during the last five games and that his two points in five playoff games doesn’t cut it. Furthermore, of all the Leafs who deserve criticism, the 21-year-old Marner deserves the most.

Kaskaris suggests the real Marner, who led his team in scoring this season and also during last season’s playoffs (nine points in the seven games), needs to “come out flying” if the Maple Leafs have any “final chance” to “salvage their season” on Tuesday in Boston.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner and Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

I think Kaskaris might be too hard on Marner. My own thinking about Babcock’s coaching strategy, which I posted a couple of days ago, is that he’s matched Marner, Tavares, and Zach Hyman against Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and either Danton Heinen or David Pastrnak as a way to neutralize Boston’s top line and allow the team’s remaining scoring power (Matthews, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, William Nylander) to take over.

Item Four: Bruins’ Defense Is Stronger Than the Maple LeafsN

Cape Breton-based writer Steve Simmons wrote a thoughtful article on April 22 about the seven-game series between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins. He pointed out that the Bruins defence of the “ancient Zdeno Chara, the great puck-movers Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy, and the emerging and impressive Brandon Carlo” is better than the Maple Leafs defense. It’s deeper and stronger. As well, although Fredrik Andersen has played great in goal, Tuukka Rask has matched him. (from ‘STEVE SIMMONS: Leafs and Bruins in Game 7 — these are the games that define careers’, Cape Breton Post – 4/22/19)_

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Simmons article, which is surprisingly unbiased, is worth reading for Maple Leafs fans.

Item Five: Maple Leafs’ Record for On-the-Road Game 7’s Is Horrible

Nick Goss of NBC News notes that the Maple Leafs record in Game 7 road losses goes back further than people realize. Almost every Maple Leaf fan knows about their team’s loss to the Bruins in the 2018 first round of the playoffs by a 7-4 score and the Game 7 first-round overtime loss in 2013 (in the Bruins come-from-behind 5-4 victory).

However, in Game 7 of the first round in 2003, the Maple Leafs lost to the Philadelphia Flyers 6-1. In 2001, they lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the New Jersey Devils 5-1. Finally, in 1995, they lost Game 7 in the first round to the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2.

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares Boston Bruins Tuukka Rask
Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares runs into Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

That sad Maple Leafs’ record goes against the trend. Since 1995, road teams have actually won more Game 7 matches than they’ve lost by a margin of 48-44.

Game 7 Is Coming Up

Although winning a Game 7 on the road has been difficult for the Leafs, that streak has to end sometime. Will it end in Boston?

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It will be interesting to see how Game 7 is played. I hope it will be a speedy, offensive game. Although I can’t see players on either team losing their cool, this game might depend on special teams. So far, the Bruins have scored on seven of 16 power play chances.