Maple Leafs serve up an uninspiring dud in Game 1 loss to Boston Bruins

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Never mind that the Maple Leafs didn’t have William Nylander in the first game of the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs.

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Where were Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner at TD Garden in Boston against the Bruins? Where was the solid goaltending that was being provided by Ilya Samsonov in the second half of the regular season?

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The best-of-seven series couldn’t have started much worse for the Leafs on Saturday night, falling in Game 1 by a score of 5-1.

When Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman made a quick pad save on Nick Robertson 90 seconds after the opening faceoff, it served notice that the Boston starter was going to be in a groove.

Not so with Samsonov, who was stuck in rut at the other end. Moments after that Swayman save on Robertson, John Beecher scored on the Bruins’ first shot on goal, converting on a 2-on-1 with Jesper Boqvist.

Yes, Joel Edmundson pinched and Ryan Reaves didn’t get back in recovery on the play, but right away, there’s a big save in the Bruins end and it’s not followed by one at the Leafs end.

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And right away, the Leafs are down 1-0.

That’s not how confidence is built.

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“There are little things inside the game that make the difference that give them the edge,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said to media in Boston. “They get a huge save early in the game at 0-0, and then shortly thereafter we make a mistake and give up a 2-on-1. That’s the type of chance we didn’t get throughout the game.”

That was the lone Bruins goal in the first period. They also hit the iron behind Samsonov three times.

Rather than striking iron in the second period, the Bruins struck gold, scoring three goals to take a 4-0 lead into the second intermission.

The Leafs had a 4-on-3 power play for the first one minute 50 seconds of the middle period and could not score.

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Brandon Carlo scored through a screen at 5:47 — on the Bruins’ first shot of the period.

Then Jake DeBrusk went to work, scoring on a power play at 15:02 with Matthews in the box and again on a power play at 17:34 with Max Domi serving a minor for slashing Brad Marchand.

Strange, the Leafs somehow were unable to fix their woeful penalty kill between the regular-season finale in Tampa Bay on Wednesday and the post-season opener on Saturday.

The Leafs, who also didn’t have Bobby McMann (lower body), handed the Bruins five power plays in total. That’s just dumb.

All the while, Swayman was calmly turning aside the rare Grade-A chances the Leafs did get. Saves on Reaves and Tyler Bertuzzi before DeBrusk’s pair were key.

The Leafs scored at 1:39 of the third when David Kampf ended Swayman’s shutout bid. Trent Frederic scored an empty-net goal for the Bruins.

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Matthews had five shots on goal and hit the post. Marner had two shots on goal. Neither, obviously, was a difference-maker, an aspect that will have to change as the series progresses, and for the sake of the Leafs, it has to happen as soon as Game 2 on Monday in Boston.

“They’re a patient team and executed on the mistakes we made,” Matthews said. “We get a taste of what the series is all about. We have to elevate our game and get better.”

No matter which team was being picked to win this series, no one figured it would be anything but a lengthy set, likely to go at least six or seven games. That should still be the expectation, but for the Leafs to break even in Beantown, they will have to find another level that eluded them in Game 1.

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That means more determination and unpredictability in the offensive zone and making it more difficult for Swayman — or Linus Ullmark — to do his job.

It means being organized on the power play after the Leafs failed to score on three man-advantages.

It means better goaltending from Samsonov, who was nothing more than average in allowing four goals on 23 shots. While Keefe could turn to Joseph Woll — and hope that Woll is a lot better than he was in the past several weeks — Keefe didn’t indicate he would do that, and let Samsonov off the hook.

“I don’t put this one on him,” Keefe said. “We only get one, so that’s not good enough to help any goalie win.

“I would categorize each of their goals from his perspective as good goals.”

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Said Samsonov, who wasn’t good in his last two starts of the regular season: “We need to believe in each other and stick together. Keep on working. It doesn’t mean after three games (I’m a) bad goalie. We see the last three months what was going on. I believe in myself, I believe in my skill.”

It’s fine to say the Leafs are a different team, one that’s more physical than it ever was during the Kyle Dubas era. It’s fine that before the series, the Leafs indicated they were ready for the challenge that the Bruins would bring.

The Leafs’ physicality didn’t matter in Game 1. And no, they weren’t fully prepared, top to bottom, for a Bruins team that is controlled and gets ruffled by nothing.

At least it’s still early.

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Nylander didn’t miss a game in the past two seasons, and he was the only Leaf to play in all 82 games in the 2023-24 regular season.

The injury, which the Leafs have not disclosed, is a rarity for Nylander. Since his rookie season in 2016-17, he has missed games, but those absences were because of a contract dispute in 2018 and illness or health protocols in recent seasons. 

An injury had not kept Nylander out of the lineup since Nov. 26, 2016, when he missed a home game against Washington because of an upper-body injury.

“He’s a very good player, makes a big difference on our team,” Keefe said. “We have played without guys at different times and we’ve handled it very well. We didn’t handle it very well tonight. 

“He is one guy we have not experienced playing without and we certainly missed him. He has nothing to do with us taking too many penalties or giving up a 2-on-1.

“Some of our best games (this past season) have been when best people are out. It’s tough to go into a playoff without him, but not the storyline here tonight. There are other things we needed to do a lot better.”

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