TORONTO -- It is the return to the scene of the crime.
Morally wounded after giving up a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins in Beantown last spring, the Toronto Maple Leafs will play their first game at TD Garden since that fateful evening, one that won’t ever be completely forgotten by the players no matter what the result is Saturday night.
To a man, the Leafs shrugged off the return to Boston after Friday night’s 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey.
"I think we’ve moved past that," said star winger Phil Kessel, who notched his 10th goal of the season.
They insist they’ve tried to erase most of those memories from Game 7.
"Most of it is, it was tougher before the season started and waiting all summer and just having to deal with it," Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. "Now that the season is started and we’re 15, 16 games into it, I think a lot of guys have forgotten about it. But it’s still in the back of your head."
Um, I would think so.
In many ways, you can argue what transpired in Game 7 led directly, in part, to the offseason game plan.
-- The Leafs traded for a shutdown, checking center in Dave Bolland.
-- They traded for a goalie in Jonathan Bernier who doesn’t give up many rebounds.
-- They signed a character power forward in David Clarkson.
I’m guessing that while general manager Dave Nonis would never admit it, he feels if he had all three of those players last spring, the Leafs would have held on to win Game 7, particularly with a guy like Bolland who could have helped calm things down defensively.
Bolland, by the way, has two Cup rings from Chicago; Bernier was on the Kings’ Cup championship team as a backup to Jonathan Quick; and Clarkson went to the 2012 Cup finals with New Jersey. All of this is the kind of experience the Leafs felt they needed to add after their playoff inexperience last spring showed up at the worst possible time.
As it turns out, only Clarkson will get to play in Boston on Saturday. Bolland is injured long-term and Bernier will likely sit while James Reimer gets the start with the Leafs playing back-to-back games Friday and Saturday. Which, by the way, is the right thing do by head coach Randy Carlyle, allowing Reimer the chance to face his Game 7 demons in Boston.
Bernier has been nothing short of spectacular for the Leafs, as he was terrific again Friday night in stopping 34 Devils shots. But the best part might be that his arrival didn’t discourage Reimer like it might have other goalies. Instead, he has shown himself to be a fighter at heart, matching Bernier save for save and giving Toronto perhaps the best goaltending in the league so far this season. Both netminders are in the top 10 in save percentage among NHL starters.
It’s because of that goaltending, too, that the Leafs have been able to put together a better record (11-5-0) than they really deserve.
This team still is too loose defensively, but makes up for it with a potent offense, great breakout speed, good special teams and an opportunistic scoring touch -- often times off the rush -- led by Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. They did it again Friday night -- another goal off the rush, and a brilliant one by Kessel in the third period to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead.
But it’s not a recipe for playoff success.
As the Blackhawks proved once again last spring, you have to be able to tighten up defensively on a consistent basis if you’re going to experience any success when the games are grinded out in the postseason; Chicago's series win over Boston was the greatest example of all.
There’s no freewheeling in the playoffs. Games aren’t won that way come spring in this league.
That’s a lesson the Leafs learned all too painfully last spring in Boston and a lesson they still are trying to master.
"We think we can go into any building and compete with any team as long as we stick with the game plan and execute," Kadri said. "There are little parts in the game that we have to correct; teams like Boston are going to hurt you if you turn the puck over in transition rushes. We have to make sure we’re smart and manage the puck."
There’s plenty of time between now and April, and they’ve got a coach in Carlyle that, in my books, is top five in the game. If anyone can get them to where they need to be defensively, it’s him.
Case in point on Friday night: Carlyle was happy with this team’s ability to draw six power plays.
"So we were doing things right as far as getting the puck into the zone, creating more offensive zone time, play more of a chip and support game," Carlyle said. "We drew six power plays. We haven’t done that in a while. That’s a starting point for our time.
"We know our special teams have been good, we know our goaltending has been good, but our 5-on-5 play needed addressing. It’s only a stepping stone for our hockey club."