Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock temporarily became a human punching bag Monday on Twitter after it became clear Tomas Plekanec would move up to the second line for Game 3 against the Boston Bruins at Air Canada Centre.
Plekanec had, well, sucked for the most part since joining the Leafs at the NHL trade deadline, and the 35-year-old’s effort through Games 1 and 2 while stationed on Toronto’s fourth line hardly suggested a forthcoming turnaround.
Yet Babcock rolled the dice and inserted Plekanec between Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner with Toronto trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. And the move paid off, as Toronto’s new-look second line kept Boston’s dominant first line in check en route to a 4-2 win.
?(Plekanec) played his best game since he’s been here,? Babcock told reporters after Toronto’s Game 3 victory. ?Maybe just the fact he maybe didn’t feel as important as he should have when he got here affected his play, but I thought he was really good and a huge factor in our win.?
The Bruins’ top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand has been sensational all season, both offensively and defensively. That success continued in Games 1 and 2, with the trio combining for 20 points as the Bruins outscored the Maple Leafs 12-4 at TD Garden.
The Maple Leafs looked overmatched. And Nazem Kadri’s three-game suspension for a cheap shot on Tommy Wingels in Game 1 and Leo Komarov’s lower-body injury suffered in Game 2 further complicated matters for Toronto as the series shifted north of the border.
The Maple Leafs could more easily pick their spots in Game 3 — a benefit to being back on their home ice and having the last change — so Babcock leaned on the underperforming Plekanec in the hopes of him turning back the clock. Rather than relying on their top line of Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and William Nylander to slow the Bruins’ top line, the Maple Leafs combated the Pastrnak-Bergeron-Marchand attack with Marleau-Plekanec-Marner. Crazily, it worked.
Pastrnak, Bergeron and Marchand all were held scoreless despite still posting relatively strong puck possession numbers. Marleau potted two goals. Matthews, who was able to shake free from Bergeron’s stifling defense by virtue of Babcock’s matchups, got onto the scoresheet for the first time in the series, netting what proved to be the game-winning goal late in the second period.
“I know what I came here for — why I got traded here — and I am trying to do the best I can,” Plekanec told reporters after logging far more ice time (17:58) than he had in any of his previous 19 games with Toronto. “I contributed more than I did in the past.?
He sure did. And no one saw it coming … except maybe Babcock and Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello, who noted Plekanec’s past success against Boston upon acquiring him from the Montreal Canadiens back in February for a second-round draft pick and two prospects.
“Well, he’s certainly a player that I’ve had the opportunity to see quite a bit and also a player that’s played against Toronto quite a bit and Boston, which looks like the logical playoff opponent if everything stays as is, which it’s always possible to change,” Lamoriello said at the time of the deal. “He’s had success there in the role that he plays.”
It’s not like Plekanec dominated the Bruins during his 13-plus seasons with Montreal. And it wasn’t like he singlehandedly shut down Boston’s top line in Toronto’s Game 3 win. The B’s still had chances, especially in the third period.
He’s done a fairly decent job of containing Bergeron throughout his career, though, and Marchand also admitted once (albeit somewhat jokingly) that Plekanec has a knack for getting under his skin.
?There are a few guys who really irritate me,? Marchand said back in 2014. ? … Tomas Plekanec from Montreal, I hate him. Oh, I can?t stand him.”
Marchand’s opinion probably was shared by many Leafs fans until Game 3, when Plekanec — seemingly out of nowhere — looked like a crafty veteran capable of logging meaningful minutes, particularly in his own end, and Toronto discovered a formula far more conducive to slowing down Boston.