Marchand applies the dagger as Bruins put Leafs on the brink

Facing an opponent missing arguably its best player in front of a raucous home crowd, the Toronto Maple Leafs felt pretty good heading into Thursday.

Less than three hours later, they had been pushed to the playoff brink.

Brad Marchand scored the winner and Tuukka Rask made 31 saves as the Boston Bruins defeated the Leafs 3-1 to grab a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round series.

Boston beats Toronto 3-1, Brad Marchand scores go-ahead goal in 2nd period.1:47

Boston was minus No. 1 centre Patrice Bergeron, who was a late scratch with an upper-body injury, but it didn’t matter as the Bruins ground out a victory on a night where some of Toronto’s young stars failed to produce on the big stage.

“We were set up pretty good,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock lamented. “We didn’t take advantage.

“That’s on us.”

Bruins capitalize on opportunity

Torey Krug and Jake DeBrusk had the other goals for the Bruins, who can seal the Eastern Conference quarterfinal at home in Game 5 on Saturday. David Pastrnak added two assists.

Tomas Plekanec replied for the Leafs, who got 18 stops from Frederik Andersen and will look to bring the series back to Air Canada Centre on Monday with a win at TD Garden — a venue where they were outscored a combined 12-4 in Games 1 and 2.

“We gave them opportunities and they didn’t miss,” Leafs forward Mitch Marner said of Thursday’s loss. “Now it’s do or die.”

Part of a top line with Marchand and Pastrnak that combined for 20 points in the Bruins’ two emphatic home victories, Bergeron sat out in favour of Riley Nash, who played well in the four-time Selke Trophy winner’s absence earlier this season.

“It doesn’t matter [if Bergeron’s out],” Marchand said. “You play the same way.”

Marchand snapped a 1-1 tie with 3:05 left in the second period after the Bruins were whistled for icing. Babcock put his top line, centred by Auston Matthews, out hoping to pounce on a tired group, but Nash won the draw to Adam McQuaid, whose clearing attempt up the boards skipped past pinching Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner.

Pastrnak moved in on a 2-on-1 with Marchand, faking a shot to draw the over-aggressive Nikita Zaitsev to him before feeding his linemate with a slick pass for a wide-open net.

The Leafs had a number of chances earlier in the period to push ahead — including a Marner breakaway that Rask turned aside with the blocker — but were unable to break through.

Marner also set up Patrick Marleau on a 2-on-1 in the first after the Bruins scored on the game’s first shot, but Rask was there to make a pad save.

Bad pinch

Boston stretched its lead to 3-1 at 4:17 of the third on another poor decision by Toronto at the offensive blue line. David Krejci blocked Travis Dermott’s shot and raced the other way on a 2-on-1 before finding DeBrusk, who beat a helpless Andersen after Roman Polak failed to block the pass across.

“We had a breakaway and a good 2-on-1, and we got nothing out of it,” Babcock said. “Both their 2-on-1s … they buried and we didn’t make good plays on them to help our goalie out.

“In the end, that’s the game.”

The speedy Leafs found their legs in Monday’s 4-2 victory to cut the deficit in the series to 2-1, but once again had trouble finding space in the neutral zone after falling behind.

Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask stops Toronto’s William Nylander during the second period of the Bruins’ 3-1 Game 4 victory over the Maple Leafs on Thursday.(Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Pastrnak now has 11 points in the series (four goals, seven assists), while Marchand has seven (two goals, five assists) despite Boston’s top line getting shut out in Game 3.

Matthews, Nylander struggling

Asked how concerned he is that Matthews, who scored the winner Monday, has been mostly invisible, Babcock said some of his youngsters are learning hard playoff lessons.

“I’m assuming he thought he would come tonight and dominate the game — that’s what I thought,” the coach said. “I thought the same with [William Nylander]. That didn’t happen, but the other people you’re playing against are pros and they’re trying, too, and they’re competitive. There’s regular-season competitiveness and there’s Stanley Cup playoff competitiveness, and it keeps amping up.

“When you leave here tonight as an individual, as a coach, as a player, you’ve got time to evaluate … and most guys are pretty honest.”

The visitors stunned Toronto just 28 second to pull the plug on an electric atmosphere when Krug’s snapshot from the sideboards found its way past Nash and Plekanec in front before glancing in off Andersen’s shoulder.

“It’s one I’ve got to fight to see,” Anderson said.

Toronto eventually got going and tied the score at 7:43 when Marner fed a pass from his knees that was helped on by Marleau to Plekanec, who made no mistake for his first goal since being acquired from Montreal prior to the trade deadline.

It looked like the Leafs would have wind in their sails from there, but they instead now face a daunting task to extend their season even beyond this weekend.

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