So, this is different.
Rarely are we able to point to the Boston Bruins’ star-laden top line as the source of the team’s collective struggles. But through three games of the B’s first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, one thing is abundantly clear: The Bruins’ first line needs to be better if Boston is going to advance.
Through three games, the Bruins’ top line has combined for just three goals and three assists, with most of that coming on the power play. Bergeron’s two goals were both power-play tallies, and the lone even-strength goal came on a long stretch pass that took an advantageous Boston bounce resulting in a two-on-one break.
The Bergeron line has been quieted during five-on-five play in situations they typically have dominated in the past. And while no one is saying it yet, it sure looked like frustration was starting to set in Monday night, as the trio was limited to just two third-period shots on goal as the Bruins frantically tried to even the game.
“Tougher time getting to the net, and as a result, I think they’re trying real hard 1-on-1 to get there,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters after Game 3. “They’ve gotta use each other better and get an old-fashioned goal where there’s a center-lane drive, a puck to the net, a second chance. They’re pretty determined guys. … I do believe a second-chance goal is in their future if they start funneling pucks a little more, getting some pucks to the net off the rush.”
As Cassidy mentioned, suddenly missing from the Bergeron line’s game are goals like this one against Winnipeg from January where all three skaters are able to find open ice going toward the net with momentum. Bergeron scores the goal on a terrific feed from Marchand but had the save been made and a rebound followed, both Marchand and Pastrnak beat their men to get in position for a second-chance opportunity.
Such opportunities, especially at even strength, have disappeared through three games against Toronto. Surely the Bruins must be better, but give credit to the Leafs. A return to Toronto with home-ice advantage gives head coach Mike Babcock the luxury of second change, which he has fully utilized by deploying his own top line of John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman along with his top defense pairing of Jake Muzzin and Nikita Zaitsev seemingly every time Bergeron and Co. hopped over the boards.
“Obviously, the priority against them is to play real good players, and that’s what we’re doing as a five-man unit” Babcock explained. “You do everything you can to at least go 50 percent in the faceoff circle so they don’t have the puck all the time.”
In the past, especially in the playoffs, the Bruins’ top line has had its way with the Leafs. Last spring, the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak trio combined for nine goals and 21 assists in seven games (with Bergeron missing a game even) with 25 of those points coming at even strength.
Clearly, however, the Leafs are better-suited to play the chess game with the offseason addition of Tavares, the deadline pickup of Muzzin and the continued evolution of a player like Marner.
“We have good players, too,” Babcock said. “With John here now, we have a veteran guy who’s been around a while and he’s gotten better and better and better defensively this year and it shows.”
The pressure is now back on Boston to find a way to make the next adjustment. Perhaps it’s a tweak to the strategy and game-planning. Maybe it’s an emphasis on making the simple play by getting pucks deep and getting in on the forecheck and trying to respond to a physical Toronto effort by upping its own efforts to bring the body. But Cassidy also isn’t ruling out a lineup change, either.
“If we feel that’s really an impediment of us having success, then we’re gonna get away from it and break up the line,” he admitted. “We do it at times — we move Pasta around — but at the end of the day, if that’s the matchup he wants, he’s going to get it. Even on the road at certain times, you can get it at certain points. We tried to get away from it on some icings to see if it would work our way. But tonight it wasn’t able to go our way, but we’ll see how it plays out Wednesday.
“I don’t mind it. It’s two good lines going head to head every night, and it’s going to tilt our way at some point. Our players are too good.”
If the Bruins are going to survive the first round, those players must start showing it soon.
Thumbnail photo via Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports Images