Though the psychological scars of 2013 might be painful for fans in Toronto, the current edition of the Maple Leafs couldn’t be more different than the roster that fell short against the Bruins the last time these two Original Six squads met in the post-season. Boston is still the favorite in this series, but Toronto has won seven of the past eight meetings between the two franchises. So what wins out: current regular season success, or playoff savvy? It’s going to be fun to see the results. Perhaps one of the most interesting wrinkles here is that for the past few months, these two teams basically knew they were going to play each other in the first round. Only a hot Boston finish and Tampa Bay swoon put the matter in doubt for a week or so. The Bruins and Leafs know each other inside and out and the psychological warfare started before the matchup was even made official.
How They Win: When Patrice Bergeron is healthy, the Bruins have the best line in hockey. Full stop. With Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak on the flanks, it’s a line that possesses almost every significant winning factor. Led by the resurgent Zdeno Chara and rookie Charlie McAvoy, Boston is a defensive juggernaut as well, displaying an ability to shut down even the most high-flying offensive teams. As they showed when they earned at least a point in 18 consecutive games – and then followed that up by winning five of their next six – once the Bruins get on a roll, they’re almost impossible to stop. There were some early hiccups, but Tuukka Rask has been very good since late November, a huge factor in the Bruins being one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. And after he was one of the worst backups in the league last season, Anton Khudobin has been one of the best this year.
How They Lose: After their first line and defense corps, the Bruins have struggled to find secondary scoring, which is precisely why they picked up Rick Nash at the trade deadline. Even if Bergeron is back and 100-percent healthy in the playoffs, Boston’s lack of push beyond the top line creates big concerns for coach Bruce Cassidy. Riding one line in the regular season is one thing, but is it sustainable for a long playoff run? History suggests that it is very, very difficult. The Bruins have actually received some significant production from their young players, but relying too heavily on them is also a risky proposition. Rask has been good but can be prone to the occasional meltdown.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
How They Win: The Maple Leafs have a dangerous, high-octane offense that is among the most explosive in the league. And that’s really interesting, considering they didn’t have a single player among the league’s top 35 scorers. Injuries robbed Auston Matthews of a place among the top 10, so that is a factor, but the lack of one shining offensive star is a testament to Toronto’s overall depth of talent on offense. And what kind of teams win in the playoffs? The ones with a lot of depth. Frederik Andersen has provided Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltending and, even with Matthews out for extended periods of time, the Leafs have been very good in the faceoff circle. They’re one of the league’s better penalty killing teams thanks to the addition of 2017 Stanley Cup winner Ron Hainsey.
How They Lose: There seems to be a real disconnect between this team and consistency of effort. The Leafs have been prone to large swings in momentum, looking like an elite team that could contend for the Cup for a period of time, then regressing into a fragile group for a spell. Their defensive shortcomings are well documented, and their depth on the blueline is suspect. This is a team that relies far too much on its goaltending and is regularly outshot by opponents. Even though the Leafs often start out with the puck because they are so good in the faceoff circle, the reality is they’re only a middling possession team. And, as has been the case for more than a year now, the chances they do give up tend to be of the 10-bell variety, causing coach Mike Babcock many nights of consternation.
Five Things To Watch
1. Clash of the titans: When the Bruins beat the Leafs in early February, Selke Trophy master Bergeron locked down Matthews mercilessly, dealing the spectacular sophomore his worst possession game ever. No doubt that will be a matchup that Bruins coach Cassidy seeks out and with home-ice advantage, he’ll get the chance in the majority of games.
2. Behind the bench: When it comes to coaching, Cassidy has a big challenge on his hands. Toronto’s Babcock has won every important title there is: a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal (twice), the worlds, world juniors and World Cup of Hockey. The last time Cassidy got past the second round as a head coach was in 2000, when his Trenton Titans lost the ECHL Kelly Cup to Peoria.
3. Charlie on the spot: One of Boston’s key defenseman, McAvoy has just returned from nearly a month on the shelf with a knee injury. Despite being a rookie, McAvoy’s puck-moving ability and physicality make him a big-time threat on the back end. In four games after the injury, he logged big minutes, but had no points and a minus-6 rating. Is he truly 100 percent?
4. Waves of blue: Simply put, every Toronto line is dangerous. Matthews, Mitch Marner and James van Riemsdyk all play on different units, while even the fourth line has the speedy and clutch Kasperi Kapanen. Boston’s bottom-six is a lot more amorphous and while the B’s have some great young options (Ryan Donato won’t play Game 1 because there is so much youth available), that cohesiveness isn’t there like it is for Toronto.
5. The Ides of Marchand: He’s one of the most controversial players in the NHL, but also one of the most talented. Boston’s Marchand is going to have an impact on this series, but it remains to be seen whether it will be in game-winning goals or suspensions (maybe both?). Either way, keep an eye on the elite agitator.
THN Series Prediction: Bruins in 7.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES