How the Maple Leafs won again to force Game 7: 3 takeaways

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In Game 5, the Toronto Maple Leafs planted a seed of doubt in the Boston Bruins, whose 3-1 series lead fell to a 3-2 lead.

In Game 6 back in Toronto, the Leafs cultivated, fertilized and watered that seed to make the doubt grow.

And now, after a convincing but tense 2-1 win, the Leafs have forced a Game 7 back in Boston with yet another chance to exorcise their playoff demons. In the process, they brought to mind some of the Bruins’ demons of their own, having blown a 3-1 series lead against the Florida Panthers in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

The Leafs fed off arguably the best Scotiabank Arena crowd of the season. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe stressed the need ahead of the game to keep things tight defensively, and while the Bruins mounted a push in the second period, the Leafs held their ground with stretches of their best defensive hockey of the series.

You could comfortably call the edgy game a low-event one, but two clutch goals from William Nylander – his first of the playoffs after missing the first three games of the series – and another outstanding performance from Joseph Woll in goal was enough for the Leafs to break their six-game home playoff losing streak.

William Nylander makes an impact

As the anxiety rose in a game deadlocked without a goal late in the second period, the typical calls from the Scotiabank Arena crowd to “Shoot!” reached a feverish pitch.

And hey, if you’re Nylander, you know how important it is to be a great listener.

With a little more than a minute left in the second period, the Leafs had an offensive-zone draw and Keefe sent his two offensively-minded defencemen, Morgan Rielly and Timothy Liljegren, over the boards. It proved an effective move, as both blueliners got a touch on the puck before sending it to Nylander, who fired a wrist shot from distance on the goal.

You have to appreciate the simplicity of Nylander’s shot. There have been times throughout this series, especially on the power play, when the Leafs could be accused of being too cute with the puck on their stick in possession and waiting for the perfect opportunity to shoot. Nylander seemed to simply throw the playbook out the window and throw the puck at the net. It found its way through traffic and past Jeremy Swayman. Nylander isn’t the type to overthink, well, anything in his life, and his modus operandi held true on the Leafs opening goal.

This is the same Nylander who, again, wasn’t overthinking the game plan before Game 6:

And “play” Nylander did, by then sealing the Leafs’ win with a sense of panache on a breakaway goal late in the third period. Full credit has to go to Matthew Knies for his behind-the-back pass to set up Nylander. Knies himself competed like a veteran all game and is growing into a dynamic, reliable playoff performer before our eyes.

Now, it should also be noted that the Leafs did get lucky seconds earlier when Pontus Holmberg wasn’t called for a penalty on what looked like a fairly clear hit from behind on Mason Lohrei.

​​​​Joseph Woll slams the door

After another impressive performance from Joseph Woll, who came into the series midway through Game 4, is it not worth wondering how different this series would look if Woll had been the starter from Game 1?

After Woll was one of the biggest stories in Game 5, the Leafs’ rookie goalie doubled down with an even more compelling showing in Game 6, stopping 22 of 23 shots.

The most notable takeaway from his performance was how little work he had in the first period, as the Bruins got just one shot on goal. In some cases, such a low amount of reps can threaten to derail a goalie mid-game.

Instead, Woll’s patience kept him in the first period, and his athleticism made him stand out in the second and third periods. He now owns a ridiculous save percentage of .964 through three appearances in this series.

Woll was at his best through a flurry of Bruins chances in the third period: He was forced to sprawl from side to side while on his stomach and make saves without his stick in an earlier sequence.

If you’re the Leafs’ skaters, how could you not feel more confident playing out of the defensive zone when Woll is as locked in as he was in Games 5 and 6?

Woll’s ability not to lose his cool in a nervous affair is yet another reminder that the Leafs’ goalie of the future has arrived in a big way.

Power play comes up empty. Again

We’re running out of ways to describe how ineffective the Leafs’ power play continues to be in this series.

When David Pastrnak was assessed a double minor for high sticking in the second period, it felt, once again, like the Leafs might finally break through on the man advantage. Instead, both units looked as disorganized and hesitant as ever. Their puck movement was, at best, questionable, and their lack of urgency was notable. None of their offensively-minded players seem intent on playing to their strengths on the power play. After six minutes with the extra skater through two periods, the Leafs had mustered a measly six shots.

Make it 1-for-20 through six games. All series, the Leafs’ power play has seemed eerily reminiscent of a student sent in to take an important exam without having read a sentence of the syllabus.

Now, on one hand, you could argue that the Leafs are tied in the series, so at least they’re playing through their power-play struggles.

But in Game 7, the margins for error feel like they’re going to be that much slimmer. One power-play goal could end up being the difference. They’ll need to improve.

(Photo of William Nylander and Timothy Liljegren: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)

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