Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA Today Images

Game Three Thoughts: Coaching adjustments continue to dictate the series

For most Toronto fans, there was a mixed feeling coming into game three. On one hand, the Leafs were dominated in an emotional game two and lost one of their key centers for the rest of the series thanks to a suspension. On the other hand, it was now a best-of-five series with three games in Toronto. The Leafs have to like their chances.

Game three was easily the evenest affair of the series. In the end, the Leafs powerplay was the difference as they scored two goals on three powerplays in an electric 3-2 win.

In this article, I will showcase some of the major talking points from game three as well as some areas I feel the Leafs need to improve if they want to win this series.

The top line of the Bruins had an unusually unorganized night

The Bergeron line has combined for a total of two even-strength points in three games, and haven’t looked close to how dangerous they were last year. One reason for this could be the players they are against. Last night, Mike Babcock did a great job of making sure the five-man unit of Hyman, Tavares, Marner, Muzzin, and Zaitsev were on the ice when Bergeron’s line was.

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All night we saw uncharacteristic play from the Bruins top line. For example, Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak usually exhibit great spacing and puck-support on their breakouts. Below we see two smart pinches, one from Muzzin and one from Zaitsev that forces a turnover and some offensive zone time for the Leafs. This leads to a great chance for Tavares.

Here’s another example of the Bruins having trouble transitioning the puck. We don’t usually see this line this spaced-out on their breakouts.

After a faceoff loss, Muzzin pressures Marchand before passing over the assignment to Hyman. Marchand seems to be thrown off by the pressure and throws the puck around the boards into an empty corner. Later in the sequence, a monstrous hit from Hyman leads to a scoring chance.

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This is my favourite defensive sequence of the game. Muzzin is assigned to Marchand and follows him to the blue line even after he passes the puck away. When McAvoy passes it back to Marchand, Muzzin swallows him at the blue line. It’s subtle but plays like this are so important to the Leafs overall success in this series.

The Leafs were skating through the Bruins all night. Here, Tavares eats up Bergeron, then swings the puck around. Marchand receives it on the far boards, but can’t connect on a pass with Pastrnak. It’s a chaotic shift, but it’s perfect from the Leafs perspective. They completely stretch out the game here and have created foot-races all over the ice. This allows their speed to take over.

It was that type of night for Marchand at even strength.

Andreas Johnsson was the best player on the ice

Mike Babcock consistently talks about how he wants his players to “start on time” and that’s exactly what Johnsson did in game three. In the first shift of the game, we saw his high-energy level and commitment to engage physically. This was just a sign of things to come.

Below, the Leafs take a breakout method out of the Marlies playbook, as Kapanen uses the boards to propel Johnsson into the neutral zone. Even though Johnsson can’t beat Brandon Carlo one-on-one, I like the effort he shows to skate back and apply pressure.

Thanks to the suspension to Nazem Kadri, Johnsson is filling in on the number one powerplay. Johnsson played in the “hole” of the 1-3-1, a position that perfectly suits his skill-set. It’s well-known that Johnsson has a good shot and is able to win puck-battles but one skill that gets overlooked is his ability to get open for a clean pass. Here, we see him open up his body to create a lane for the pass from Mitch Marner. Johnsson then slides the puck over to Matthews for the go-ahead goal.

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In this clip, Johnsson is constantly fighting to get open. He receives four passes in this sequence; one during the zone-entry, one to keep possession down-low, one to help Rielly out of a tough situation at the blue line and one that results in the goal. This is what makes him so dangerous in the hole of the 1-3-1.

The Leafs fourth line stood out, to say the least

Gauthier, Moore, and Ennis were amazing last night as they spent the majority of their shifts in the Bruins zone. Ennis was a handful in the cycle, Moore was fantastic as usual, and this was easily Gauthier’s best game of the series.

Here’s some of their work from last night.

Gauthier was skating really well last night. He was a big reason why the fourth line found so much success, especially in transition.

The Leafs fourth line finally got rewarded as they were responsible for the first goal of the game.

Where the Leafs need to improve

Despite being up 2-1 in the series, the Leafs still need to improve on some things if they want to advance to the second round. This series has been really close thus far and Boston is one win away from gaining back home-ice advantage.

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The Leafs wingers need to stop cheating

The success of the Leafs breakout is going to continue being a major factor in this series. In transition, the Leafs are a very ‘north-south’ team as they try to get the puck up the ice as soon as they can. The Bruins are well aware of this and have a set gameplan on how to counter, as illustrated below by Bruce Cassidy.

In game two, we saw an example of this strategy at its best. The puck goes in deep, the Bruins cause a turnover and the Leafs don’t get enough numbers in front of the net to stop the quality scoring chance.

Here’s one from last night. Kapanen is more interested in heading up the ice for a breakout pass then he is protecting the front of the net. All three Leafs forwards are caught flat-footed and Debrusk easily slides into the slot to tie the game.


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The line of Marleau, Nylander, and Brown

The only time the Leafs got outplayed last night was when the Nylander, Marleau, and Brown line was on the ice. Despite being sheltered in terms of zone-starts, they still weren’t able to generate many scoring chances.

Here’s a good example of what happens when this line is on the ice. Nylander, the puck carrier, is trying to find something to do but doesn’t have many options. In the end, the Leafs are forced to throw a weak shot on net and end up chasing the puck for the rest of the shift.

Here we see a similar situation. Nylander is looking for something to do but again, his linemates don’t move. If Babcock is going to continue throwing out this line for offensive-zone faceoffs, they are going to have to figure out how to generate scoring chances.

Final thoughts

  • The fourth line wingers need more ice time. Trevor Moore excels in many different areas of the game and would thrive on Nylander’s wing. In addition, Tyler Ennis is so dangerous in the offensive zone. If Babcock is going to continue sheltering Nylander’s line in terms of zone-starts, you might as well give him wingers who can generate chances in the offensive zone.
  • Marleau and Brown haven’t fared well when on the same line this year and it doesn’t look like that’s about to change. I’ve liked Brown’s game when he’s up against other fourth lines and I think the same would be said about Marleau if he was given fourth line minutes. A line of Marleau, Gauthier, and Brown isn’t ideal, but I don’t think it would be a huge problem if they were playing under ten minutes a game, at even strength.
  • The Hyman, Tavares, Marner, Muzzin, and Zaitsev unit is working against the Bergeron line. Don’t change a thing for game four.
  • After a great performance from Andreas Johnsson in game three, it’s now Kapanen’s turn to step up. He’s been pretty underwhelming thus far and has been a passenger on his line, for the most part.
  • It’s almost an expectation at this point, but Andersen has been really good and continues giving the Leafs a chance to win every night.

See y’all after game four.

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  • Bob Canuck


    Thanks for the insightful article.

    I too wish that the Leafs would employ more of the Marlies/5-man breakout. Compared to “blowing the zone”, it gives options to the Leaf with the puck (particularly, those D-men who don’t handle the puck well), and everyone is back in case there is a turnover.

    The third line is an issue. Even just switching Moore and Marleau would give some options to Nylander. I don’t know if it was your tweet but there was one the other night that captured Nylander’s plight. The cartoon showed a person looking to throw a Frisbee to someone but no one was there. The person ended up throwing it, picking it up, and throwing it again.