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Thoughts on the Leafs-Bruins series ahead of Game 7 – Sportsnet.ca

I have to be completely honest: Until Thursday afternoon, I had a hard time envisioning the Toronto Maple Leafs extending their series against the Boston Bruins to a seventh game on Saturday.

With Auston Matthews remaining out of the lineup, the team struggling to produce on the power play and the fact that the Leafs were on a six-game losing streak at home in the playoffs, I wasn’t willing to spend my weekly paycheck betting on a Leafs victory.

But here I am now, writing about some of my observations after the Leafs avoided elimination again with their 2-1 win over the Bruins in Toronto.

Here are some of my exploration notes from the game:

TORONTO

Several Leafs stood out to me for their level of sacrifice and determination. They have improved their game as the series has progressed and now show the best version of themselves:

• William Nylander goes about his business in his own way. Sometimes it’s hard to understand his approach, but when he’s “on,” there’s no doubt he’s one of the best forwards in the NHL.

Nylander’s first goal was a fluke, but he used his skating and elusiveness high on the Bruins wing to create a shooting lane. Nylander is difficult to control when he’s guarding pucks or spinning opponents, and once he directed the puck toward the net, he was lucky to see it deflect off Charlie McAvoy into the Bruins’ net.

His second goal was an elite finish on a clear breakaway. He has the skill and patience to open up NHL goalies and casually slide pucks between their legs for creases.

• Matthew Knies clocked 19:10 in ice time. His relentless competitiveness, going up and down the ice for 200 feet, stood out to me throughout the game. Knies has the ability to produce a secondary offense at this stage of his career. His overtime goal in Game 5 is an example, but what stands out to me is the heavy lifting and small details.

Goals have been hard to come by in this series, but Knies is second on the Leafs in scoring with two goals and an assist. His goal stands out because it was an overtime winner, but look at his assist on Nylander’s Game 6 winner. Knies absorbed the contact in the neutral zone and pushed the puck toward Nylander for the break. It’s a small example of how the Knies can extend plays that lead to positive results.

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The 21-year-old rookie has prevailed and is credited with 22 hits in the series. His nine blocks lead the forward group.

• Simon Benoit isn’t the fastest defenseman in the NHL, but he’s big and lean. Benoit’s “length” is an advantage because he uses it to keep opponents off the points and guide them toward the perimeter and boards. He was credited with nine hits and four blocked shots in Game 6.

I had Benoit as the seventh, maybe eighth, defenseman on the Leafs’ roster in the fall, so I have to give him all the credit for his character and perseverance. No matter what happens in Game 7, Benoit has brought exceptional value to the Leafs. He was paid just $775,000 this season and he got a three-year, $1.35 million (AAV) extension going forward.

• Longtime Leafs season ticket holder Al Hodgson went out of his way to send me a message that Max Domi would be a thorn in the Bruins’ side and make a difference over the course of the series . Turns out he was right!

I have to admit that I wasn’t very impressed with Domi’s approach at the beginning of the series. He was too predictable in employing his strategy of trying to distract the Bruins players, especially Brad Marchand.

But in Matthews’ absence, Domi has played his best hockey. Her speed is on display, as is her tenacity in tracking pucks and creating distractions. Domi leads the group offensively with a goal and three assists. Another impressive statistic is that he won 72 percent of his faceoffs in this series, although that success rate dropped to 54 percent (still good!) in Game 6.

• Noah Gregor played only 8:21 in Game 6, but was effective in his role and played fast and physical. He was credited with six hits and he would definitely be in my lineup for Game 7.

• Joseph Woll’s composure and positioning in the crease means pucks find him in traffic. Woll is much less busy at the net than his teammate Ilya Samsonov and is much more predictable. Woll has no problem preparing for the big stage of the playoffs. No matter what happens in Game 7, Woll is the future full-time No. 1 goaltender in Toronto’s net.

• In the spring of 2016, when I was scouting the Florida Panthers, John Tavares carried the New York Islanders and led them to a six-game series on our team. Tavares finished that playoff season with six goals and five assists in 11 games.

Tavares isn’t the same player he was in 2016, but it can be argued that he has played some of his best overall hockey for Toronto over the last two games. His net momentum in Game 5 led to Knies’ game-winning goal, and in Game 6, Tavares had seven hits and won 65 percent of his faceoffs.

Tavares has only scored one goal and one assist in the series, but his 28 hits, 19 shots on goal and 58 percent faceoff winning percentage stand out as positives.

• If Mitch Marner isn’t producing offense, he needs to make sure he competes up and down the ice and brings maximum detail to the defense. Marner continues to cool off offensively, but his commitment to defense has improved throughout the series.

It’s a small victory to describe Marner this way, but beggars can’t be choosers this time of year and Marner averages over 20 minutes of ice time, which means he has to contribute positively in areas other than offense.

• I don’t think David Kampf missed a shift after taking a hit from McAvoy in the second period. Kampf left with a bloody nose after sacrificing his face for the good of the group. It’s still fun to watch some old school hockey.

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BOSTON

• Boston goaltender Jeremy Swayman has posted a 1.60 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage in five games. Any talk of the Bruins making a change in net is pointless in my opinion. Swayman starts Game 7.

• David Pastrnak has to be much better for the Bruins if they want to find a way to overcome this team’s Game 7 jinx. The highlight of Pastrnak’s night, or should I say worst, was his four-minute penalty on Leafs forward Tyler Bertuzzi. Otherwise I had to look for Pastrnak. He had little to no impact on the game.

Pastrnak would lead the Leafs in scoring. He contributed two goals and two assists in the first four games of the series, but was pointless in Games 5 and 6.

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• Playoff games are often won and lost due to a losing streak. McAvoy is averaging over 26 minutes of ice time per game for the Bruins. He is a warrior who is used in all situations, produces offensively (four assists) and hits with enthusiasm (27 hits). The puck he bounced off his knee into the Bruins’ net on Toronto’s first goal in Game 6 was the kind of bad breakup I’m describing.

• Boston was the better team in the second half of Game 6. I’m not sure why the group doesn’t start on time in the first half of the games. Are the Bruins in their own heads? Are they tight or stressed? One thing is for sure, if they play a full 60 minutes the same way they played their final 30 minutes in Game 6, the Leafs will have their hands full and Joseph Woll will have to be their best player in Game 7.

Note: Boston had one shot on goal midway through Game 6. The Bruins finished with 23 shots, directing twice as many shots on goal as Toronto in the second half of the game.

Special teams

NHL referees would prefer that no one in the building know their name at the end of a hockey game. It’s especially true in the playoffs. The last thing the world’s top officials want to do is be part of the game. They prefer the battle to be between the teams and usually allow them to resolve the series on their own in Games 7.

But one or two penalties are likely to be called on Saturday night. The special teams battle is magnified in the playoffs, and the Maple Leafs’ power play has been nothing short of a disaster in the series, going 1 for 20.

Of course, it’s important to give credit to the Bruins’ penalty killers. Boston has done a fantastic job of pressuring the Leafs, not allowing clean entries into the zone or any kind of sustained puck control on the Bruins end.

Sometimes it’s best to simplify strategies down to the basics. Toronto has the ability to get into control with speed and tenacity. It’s never ideal to give up puck possession through dunks or chips in areas that require winning a run for a puck, but the controlled entry the Leafs are trying to establish isn’t working.

Maybe we’re at the point where the Leafs need to simplify their approach and attack with all five skaters, using chips and dunks and outnumbering the Bruins in the rush to pucks. Once possession is gained, it might be best to get pucks to the net in traffic as soon as possible/crash the net, looking for tips and rebounds or a cheap rebound.

There’s a chance the Leafs could be unique with this approach, but so far they’ve been “none and done,” for the most part. The way this series is being played, going 1 for 2 on the power play Saturday night could lead the Leafs to victory.