At their worst this season, when the Maple Leafs couldn’t clear the puck from their own end and the opposition would outshoot them near 2- 1, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle would occasionally joke that it was all part of his grand plan.
Allowing the other team to dominate the Toronto end, allowing the Toronto netminder to be pelted with an onslaught of shots — Carlyle would laugh and call it “rope-a-dope.” You know, boxing speak for tiring the other guy out by letting him pound you.
Perhaps that’s what the Boston Bruins were up to during Friday night’s first period. Looking far from the formidable group that carved out a 3-1 series lead over the Maple Leafs with ruthless forechecking and fearless net crashing, suddenly the Bruins looked like jittery playoff newbies.
Outshot 19-8 in a first period in which only Tuukka Rask’s glove-hand mastery kept the Leafs off the scoresheet, all Boston’s pre-game talk about closing out the series with the hard-working ruthlessness that got them within a game of the second round was ringing hollow.
As Andrew Ference would say after it was over: “Sloppy start.”
Sloppy tone set, the Bruins never really recovered in a 2-1 loss that cut their lead in the best-of-seven set to 3-2. They gave up a short-handed second-period goal to Tyler Bozak thanks to a Ference mishandling of a bouncing puck at the point. They allowed Clarke MacArthur to take advantage of a Nathan Horton giveaway and score unassisted less than two minutes into the third period. In short, they dug a 2-0 hole with lackadaisical, imprecise play.
Make no mistake, the Bruins punched back at times, and hard. They turned the rope-a-dope model around on the Leafs in the final frame, outshooting the visitors 19-4 and hemming Toronto in its own end for agonizing stretches. Boston captain Zdeno Chara cut it to 2-1 with less than nine minutes to play. Johnny Boychuk hit a crossbar. With 11 seconds to play Jaromir Jagr had a point-blank shot repelled by game MVP James Reimer, and Jagr raised his eyes to the heavens while shaking his head in frustration.
But the Bruins could not land anything resembling a knockout. There was a distinct feeling in the Boston dressing room that, while the Leafs were every bit deserving of the victory, the home team was ever so predictable in its sub-par work.
That’s three times now that the Claude Julien-era Bruins have come into a Game 5 with a 3-1 advantage. And that’s three times now they’ve lost to extend the series.
“We don’t like things easy, it seems like,” defenceman Dennis Seidenberg said. “You can go back to I don’t know how many games or series — we just seem like we always want to make it tight or more harder on ourselves.”
Said forward Brad Marchand: “We weren’t prepared. Maybe we thought it was going to be a little easier than it was going to be. They came out very hard and really put a lot of pressure on us, and we weren’t ready.”
So much for the value of experience. The hope in the home dressing room before the game was that Boston’s previous closeout-game failures would be useful teachers. And the previous failures, of course, have been far bigger than a squandered 3-1 advantage. In the spring of 2010 the Bruins became just the third team in NHL history to hold a 3-0 series lead and lose the next four games. Boston, of course, followed up that thud with a Stanley Cup run in 2011.