After an abysmal showing in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series with the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs showed a lot of resiliency and character to tie the series with an impressive Game 2 performance on Saturday that will give this young team a ton of confidence heading into Game 3 at the Air Canada Centre on Monday.
First-line winger Joffrey Lupul, who is one of the few players on the Leafs roster with 40-plus games of postseason experience, led his team offensively with two very important goals in the second period. His final goal gave the Leafs a 2-1 advantage and their first lead going into an intermission in this series.
"We bounced back; we’ve been doing it all year," said Lupul following the game. "I think that’s one of the main differences [of] our team this year to last year: When we have had bad outings—like we did for sure in [Game 1]—we are able to refocus and bounce back."
Just 53 seconds into the third period, star forward Phil Kessel took advantage of an out-of-position Dennis Seidenberg, raced down the ice on a breakaway and beat Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a commanding 3-1 lead.
Kessel was fired up during his celebration in a rare showing of intense emotion, and it's not hard to understand why. It was his first even-strength goal in 24 career games against his former team, and it also proved to his teammates that he was capable of getting the job done in high-pressure playoff situations on the road. Kessel played poorly in Game 1 and was a non-factor offensively, but he bounced back well on Saturday to silence the TD Garden crowd that chants his name and boos him almost every time he touches the puck.
The 25-year-old winger's goal came off an odd-man rush that was created from a defensive breakdown by the Bruins, which was a real problem for them on the night. It's not often that we see these kinds of lapses defensively from Boston (who finished third in GAA during the regular season), a team that is responsible defensively in all three zones on a consistent basis.
"The breakdowns that we had defensively were poor breakdowns on our part and we gave them a lot of outnumbered situations," said Bruins head coach Claude Julien after the game.
"We have to be better defensively in order to be better offensively. I said that last time. Our team, when it’s good defensively, it creates chances offensively; we turn pucks over and we go on the attack. But tonight, not quite as good as we were in Game 1."
Luckily for the Bruins, the problems they had in Game 2 are correctable. There are no major issues to be concerned about, but some of the fundamentals need to be fine-tuned.
For starters, the defensemen need to be smarter when they pinch in the attacking zone and step up to take shots, because the Leafs have players with the speed to get up ice and create quality scoring chances. On Kessel's goal (video above), Seidenberg goes too far forward in the offensive zone and allows the Leafs star to create a breakaway opportunity with his exceptional speed.
It's OK to be aggressive, but it has to be done responsibly. These mental errors from the Bruins were discouraging, but they are totally fixable.
Boston also needs to get out of its own end much quicker and prevent the Leafs from controlling possession of the puck in the attacking zone with an effective forecheck. How will this issue be addressed?
The return of veteran defenseman Andrew Ference to the lineup will be a good first step. The 34-year-old was suspended for Game 2 because of his elbow to the head of Leafs center Mikhail Grabovski in Wednesday's series opener.
The Bruins had trouble with their breakouts in Game 2 because Toronto's forecheck was very aggressive and took time and space away from Boston's defensemen, which prevented them from making clean entries out of their own zone.
"Yeah, we didn’t do a great job of that," said Bruins defenseman Wade Redden when asked about the team's inability to evade the Leafs forecheck. "I think that’s a big part of getting on the offense, for sure, is getting up the ice. That first pass, we got to be better there."
Ference's ability to read the situation in front of him and make quick decisions to get the puck up ice to the Bruins forwards is a key part of the team's ability to create sustained pressure in the Leafs zone. He did a great job starting the team's breakouts in Game 1, and his absence in this aspect of the game was noticeable in Game 2.
In addition to cleaner breakouts and quicker decision-making, the Bruins must do a better job of keeping their composure and not taking dumb penalties. They took seven penalties through the first two games of this series, which has given the Leafs far too many quality scoring chances.
Toronto finished 14th in power-play percentage this season, and head coach Randy Carlyle has a lot elite skill to put on the ice in these situations, with players such as James Van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf, Kessel and Lupul all capable of scoring goals with the man advantage.
Boston's penalty kill was a strength for most of the season (fourth best in NHL), but it struggled toward the end of the regular season with power-play goals allowed in five of the team's final eight games. The Bruins have now given up a power-play goal to Toronto in three straight games, so this is clearly an area that needs to be looked at in practice before Game 3.
If Boston is more aggressive at the blue line and does a better job winning the 50-50 puck battles below the goal line and along the half-boards, the penalty kill will improve.
The Bruins also didn't match their opponent's intensity or hunger in Game 2, but for a veteran team that's roster is full of former Stanley Cup champions, Boston will look over its mistakes on video and make the necessary adjustments to improve on Monday in Toronto.
"Nobody said it was going to be easy, and we know that we can be a lot better, so we’ve just got to get ready for the next game," said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.
Boston has enjoyed a lot of success at the Air Canada Centre since the start of the 2011-12 season, with four wins in its last five games in Toronto. This team will be confident on the road, especially since several of its players, including Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, grew up as Leafs fans and will likely play in front of family and friends over the next two games.
All the Bruins need to do to be successful in Toronto is look at the game film from their 4-1 victory in the series opener. When this team plays with a higher level of energy than its opponent, wins the physical battles and plays smart defensively, it is extremely difficult to beat because of its depth and strong goaltending.
Anyone who watched the Bruins this season knows that giving up a large amount of breakaways and odd-man rushes is unusual for this team, so it's unlikely that we will see a similarly poor performance defensively from Boston in Game 3.
The Bruins' areas of weakness in Game 2 aren't anything to be overly concerned about, but their effort level has to be better in front of a Leafs crowd that will be full of excitement on Monday night in the first playoff game at the Air Canada Centre since 2004.
"We know it’s going to be noisy and there’s going to be a lot of electricity in the air," said Julien. "We have to face that. We’re the bad team coming in and what you’ve got to do is focus on your job and hopefully not let that kind of stuff throw you off your game."
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. Nick has also covered the Bruins since the 2010-11 season. All quotes obtained firsthand.