TORONTO — Forward Tomas Plekanec was waiting for a chance to show Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock he was more than just a depth guy. He picked the right moment to prove himself.
Looking to avoid a 3-0 series deficit against Boston, Plekanec had his best outing as a Leaf on Monday in Toronto’s Game 3 victory over the Bruins, much to Babcock’s satisfaction. He played 17:58 — the most ice time he’s had in 20 games with Toronto since being acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline — in a top-six role alongside Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau.
He hit the scoresheet with an assist on Marleau’s third-period goal that sealed the 4-2 win, but more importantly won the matchup against Boston’s top line by keeping it off the scoresheet for the first time in the series.
“I felt better. Every player says that when you’re in the game more: you feel much better about yourself, you’re more confident, and the key to that was at the beginning of the game. We had a good couple shifts, gets you going, and you can shake off that rust from previous games,” said Plekanec.
“And I felt personally very good physically, which I wasn’t really sure about after a long time not playing a lot of minutes. I felt very good.”
Plekanec had been used to playing a significant role with Montreal for the majority of his 11-year career, and having to adapt to a lesser one with Toronto has come with some challenges.
The 35-year-old averaged close to 20 minutes of ice time a night in 87 career playoff games with the Canadiens, but only played a combined 21:25 in the first two games against Boston. With centre Nazem Kadri serving the second game of his three-game suspension on Monday and Toronto having last change with home-ice advantage, Babcock felt the need to move Plekanec up in the lineup with the hope of maximizing what he could get out of the veteran centre.
“He played his best game since he’s been here,” Babcock said. “Maybe just the fact he maybe didn’t feel as important as he should have when he got here affected his play, but I thought he was really good and a huge factor in our win.”
Plekanec joined Toronto as an accomplished two-way player and penalty killer, even if his offensive statistics have dropped since his prime years.
When the Leafs traded for Plekanec, the expectation was that he would give Toronto depth down the middle. Babcock wasn’t concerned that Plekanec only produced two assists in 17 regular-season games after the deal and said he was thrilled to have him for the playoffs because “you can trust him. You can trust him without the puck, you can trust him to play against good players.”
“I know what I came for here, why I got traded for, and I’m trying to do the best I can. And I try to focus on that,” said Plekanec, who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
The trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak torched Toronto for 20 points in two wins at TD Garden, playing mostly against the Auston Matthews line. They had their chances in Game 3, but when it was over the Leafs cut Boston’s series lead to 2-1 by keeping the trio from producing.
“End of the day, they can be better. They had a tougher matchup (in Game 3) determined to keep them off the scoresheet, and they did,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.
Kadri is expected to return for Game 5, while forward Leo Komarov, who missed Game 3 with a lower-body injury, could be back for Thursday’s Game 4 at Air Canada Centre. Babcock will have to decide what he wants with his matchups when the time comes.
Plekanec’s linemates supplied some much-needed offence in Game 3, with Marleau scoring twice and Marner picking up two assists.
“Pleky’s a hell of a player,” said Marner. “He’s very good at shutting down the other team’s best players. He’s done it a long time in Montreal. You see it first-hand now — he’s always loved people, he’s always loved the puck and when he gets it in his hands he makes smart plays.
“It’s fun playing with him. He’s very responsible with the puck.”