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Coaches Room

Matthews improving for Maple Leafs in playoffs

MacLean says coaching adjustments could make center more dangerous against Bruins in Game 4, beyond

by Paul MacLean / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In this edition, Paul MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, breaks down why Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews broke through in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Boston Bruins on Monday -- and how he can maintain that success.

 

Auston Matthews came into Game 3 with a total of two points (one goal, one assist) in his previous nine Stanley Cup Playoff games -- all against the Boston Bruins.

A big reason for his dry spell, in my opinion, is him having to go up against Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, one of the top defensive forwards we've seen in recent memory, in those nine games. Remember, Matthews had five points (four goals, one assist) in a six-game series loss against the Capitals in his rookie season of 2016-17. 

 

[RELATED: Complete Bruins vs. Maple Leafs series coverage]

 

But we are starting to see Matthews making the adjustments required for success during the postseason, when every inch of ice is at a premium. His hard work came to the forefront in Game 3, when he had one goal and one assist in Toronto's 3-2 victory.

It gave the Maple Leafs a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series, and if Matthews continues to have more and more impact like he did in Game 3, Toronto certainly has a better chance to win its first playoff series since 2004. Game 4 is at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS, NESN).

In breaking down why the Toronto center was so effective, part of the credit must go to coach Mike Babcock's adjustments that have resulted in Matthews playing deeper in the defensive zone on breakouts. With Matthews staying back there a little bit longer, the Maple Leafs have established some room for him to skate and see the ice ahead of him, especially in the middle of the rink.

Video: Matthews gets going and the Maple Leafs win Game 3

For much of the regular season, Toronto was known for having a stretch-and-tip offense and a flip-and-alley-oop offense. But a lot of that gets taken away in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially when you are playing the same team potentially six or seven times. A team and players have to come up with a different approach. Playing deeper is the best way for a someone like Matthews to get to the puck, which makes sense because he and center John Tavares are the best Maple Leafs players to have the puck.

It's a basic game plan: the best way for a team's best players to get the puck is to be closer to it. With the stretch game, they are much further away from the puck. And if a player is a real puck guy like Matthews is, the closer he is to the puck and the sooner he gets it, the better he is going to be able to play offense. 

Sure, it gets them into a better defensive posture by being deeper in their own zone. But it also creates offense because of their proximity to the puck. Once they get it, it allows them to get their head up sooner and gives them a better view to dissect the ice in front of them. A player like Matthews can start picking options on how to make his entry into the offensive zone much sooner.

I think forwards playing deeper on the breakout has always been in the Maple Leafs' bag of tactics. They're now implementing it because of the heavy forecheck the Bruins bring to the table, with an active unit of five guys on the attack. The way to combat that: have the five skaters on the ice closer together and, as I mentioned, closer to the puck. The key for Matthews to counter the Bruins forecheck is to be closer to the puck and move it quickly when he gets it.

Just as big a factor is the presence of Tavares, who plays on the top line and allows Matthews to play on the second or third line depending on how Babcock wants to move the three lines around. Not having to go up against the Bergeron line all the time gives Matthews more freedom and have more open ice, for sure.

Playing on a line with speedsters Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen also provides Matthews with more real estate to move around in. If defenders concentrate on him too much, Johnsson and Kapanen can exploit those tactics and get behind the defense thanks to their elite wheels.

It appears Matthews gained confidence as the game progressed Monday. Having been put in a better position to succeed, because of tactical alterations and because of the presence of Tavares, Matthews may continue on his learning curve of being a more dominant force. 

If that happens, it could be bad news for the Bruins and the rest of the NHL.

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