The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Game 1 of their first-round playoff series with the Boston Bruins full of confidence after playing well versus their Northeast Division rivals in four regular-season matchups.
But after a series-opening disaster on Wednesday night in which the Leafs were completely dominated in every facet of the game by the Bruins in a 4-1 loss, it's clear that Toronto has a ton of work to do before it becomes a successful playoff team.
"I just thought we self-destructed," said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle after the game.
"We had a decent start. We scored the first goal. We get ourselves on the right track, in the opposition’s building. I thought we had our forecheck going early in the hockey game, but then we just stopped. As we’ve said, we know that this is going to take more than an ordinary effort, and tonight, our effort wasn’t anywhere near close enough to put us in a competitive position."
The game couldn't have started any better for the Leafs, who earned an early power play that James van Riemsdyk capitalized on to give the visitors a huge 1-0 lead. Then the wheels started to fall off, and the Bruins took complete control of the game for the remaining 50 minutes.
There are several problem areas that the Leafs need to be concerned about. One of them is puck possession, which this team struggled with during the regular season, and it was once again an issue in Game 1.
Toronto gave the puck up way too easily in this game, and these turnovers helped create quality scoring chances for the Bruins, who had an astounding 40-20 shot advantage.
"You’ve got to be smart with the puck," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. "Against a team like that, that likes to transition the puck, if you turn it over, they’re going to make you pay. They thrive off of that kind of stuff in transition. We’ve got to clean up our game..."
Not only did the Leafs turn the puck over in the neutral zone many times, their breakouts were also ineffective against the aggressive Bruins forecheck. Toronto had very little time and space in its own zone to start a rush up ice, which was one of the reasons why the Leafs were unable to sustain much offensive zone pressure.
"Those turnovers at the blue line killed us," said Leafs forward Nazem Kadri. "They are a transition team. It seemed like every chance they got was off of a forecheck and a cycle."
The Leafs led the league in giveaways this year (75 more than any team), and if this problem isn't corrected soon, this series will be over quickly.
Once you gain possession of the puck, it has to get out of your own zone, and the Leafs did a poor job of this throughout the night. In fact, most of the Leafs looked hesitant and nervous with the puck on their stick. This can be attributed to a lack of playoff experience, but the pressure that the Bruins put on their opponents also played a part.
Two of the reasons why some people predicted the Leafs would extend this series six or seven games and maybe even upset the Bruins are their physical play and ability to match Boston's toughness.
Carlyle decided to start enforcers Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr instead of some more offensively skilled players, and this proved to be a poor decision.
Toronto was unable to knock the Bruins off their game and bait them into cheap penalties. McLaren and Orr were highly ineffective in their roles and combined for just five hits and 19 PIM. There's no reason for both of these players to have a spot in the lineup on Saturday, especially with the Leafs needing more scoring depth.
Speaking of scoring, several of the Leafs' top forwards were non-factors in this game, including Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Kadri. As expected, the Bruins countered Kessel's skill and quickness with the shutdown defensive pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. This duo kept Kessel in check all night and limited him to just one shot on goal.
"Like with every offensive guy that’s really skilled, that’s got speed, you want to be tight on them," said Seidenberg when asked about defending Kessel.
"You want to have a good gap and don’t want to give them a lot of room to get speed, so the forwards doing a good job putting back pressure on him and the defensemen just stayed really tight on [Kessel] for him not to get any room to make plays."
Struggling in Boston is nothing new for Kessel, who came into Game 1 with zero even-strength goals in 22 career games versus the Bruins since he was traded from the Beantown club to the Leafs prior to the 2009-10 season.
Chara was on the ice for all 21 of Kessel's shifts, and if the Leafs cannot find ways to get their top goal scorer going offensively, they won't score generate enough offense to win this series. Even though going up against Chara and Seidenberg is difficult, there's no excuse for a player with Kessel's impressive skill set to make absolutely no impact offensively.
Kessel, Lupul and Kadri combined for just four shots on goal and a minus-three rating. When Boston's fourth line of Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Dan Paille outplays the Leafs' top line, it's easy to understand why Toronto has so many problems to address at practice on Thursday and Friday.
Leadership was also a problem for the Leafs. The team's body language was poor tonight, and very rarely did you see any fight or energy from Toronto once it started to fall behind on the scoreboard. Carlyle needed some of his leaders, particularly Phaneuf, to step up and take charge, and that didn't happen on the ice.
The Bruins limped into the playoffs with four losses in their final six regular-season games, but they flipped the proverbial switch on Wednesday and gave one of their best performances in a long time. After last year's Stanley Cup defense ended in disappointing fashion, this Bruins team is highly motivated for a more positive result in 2013.
For the Leafs to get back in this series, they must match their opponents' intensity and play a 60-minute game. It's easy to point to the lack of postseason experience as an excuse for the Leafs' struggles in Game 1, but their problems are deeper than that. They were outplayed and out-coached by a team that has now beaten them in 10 of the last 11 meetings.
"We got lots of things to correct but the positive thing is that they are easy correctibles," said Kadri. "We are going to head back to the drawing board and figure this all out."
They better do it quick, because if the Leafs don't play a much better Game 2 with a stronger effort level on Saturday, this series won't return to Boston for a Game 5.
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. All quotes obtained firsthand.
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