The more things change, the more they stay the same. As the new-look Toronto Maple Leafs enter the post-season seeking their first trip to the second round of the post-season in 15 years, they square off agains a Boston Bruins team that sent the hopeful Buds packing last season. That series was a slugfest, but when push came to shove, the Bruins pushed and the Maple Leafs didn’t shove back. The seven-game set ended unceremoniously for Toronto, who were thumped 7-4 in the series-deciding contest after battling back from a 3-1 series deficit. Like last season, the Bruins enter the playoffs with home-ice advantage in their back pocket, and Boston will lean on its top line and signature brand of possession-heavy hockey to end Toronto’s season early once again.
When you talk about super lines in the NHL, they simply don’t get any more super than the Bruins’ top unit of Patrice Bergeron between David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. The trio is dominant at both ends of the ice and induces migraines among opposing coaches and players. When that group is healthy and on its game, there is almost no way to stop it.
The forward depth does fall off rather significantly after the top line, which says as much about how good that trio is as it does about the team’s secondary forwards. David Krejci has had a very good season despite a continuous rotation of wingers. The Bruins have a physical team and play a style that skews toward playoff success. Their goaltending, while often maligned by the fan base, is rock solid and has a proven playoff pedigree: in 65 career playoff games, Tuukka Rask has .924 save percentage to go along with a 2.25 goals-against average. And Jaroslav Halak, who’s played half the games this year, is known for his past post-season heroics.
Most of the Bruins’ problems are on the defensive side. Their D-corps has a propensity for getting lit up and is vulnerable against teams with a lot of speed. But it’s not only that. The defensive unit is often responsible for poor coverage even when it can catch opposing wingers. If Rask isn’t at his best, the Bruins are often sunk. As good as they are up front, they don’t have the ability to constantly outscore their defensive inefficiencies. As dangerous as the B’s are on their top line and, to a lesser degree, their second line, their bottom-six forwards struggle to produce even a modicum of offense.
Many of the Bruins’ core players have a lot of NHL miles on their bodies and will be tested if the team goes on a long playoff run. Fatigue and burnout, particularly given the path they’ll have to take, are legitimate possibilities.
X-Factor: Boston has an enormous mental edge on its opponent. Ever since the Game 7 comeback in 2013, the Bruins have been inside the heads of the Maple Leafs, and there seems to be a notion the Leafs cannot beat the Bruins in the playoffs. Boston also has a very decided physical edge over Toronto, which has in the past had a unique way of silencing Toronto’s best players.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
From the moment the Toronto Maple Leafs shocked the hockey world by signing John Tavares last summer, the expectations for this organization went into overdrive, and for good reason. The Leafs are a dynamic, explosive bunch, capable of scoring their way out of trouble and simply overwhelming their opponents with their abundance of skill. Frederik Andersen was having a career season and emerged as a candidate for the organization’s first Vezina Trophy since it began being awarded to the best goalie as voted by league GMs in 1982.
The Leafs can roll out three dangerous scoring lines and have speed at every position. They can transition the puck from defense to offense more quickly than any team. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, Calgary Flames and Washington Capitals have a better 5-on-5 goal differential, and even though it’s still maligned, Toronto’s defense has improved to the point where it’s in the upper half of the NHL.
This is not a team, however, without its warts. There are real questions about the Leafs’ toughness, both mental and physical. They tend to wilt in games against opponents who grind things out, the kinds of affairs coach Mike Babcock refers to as “hard games.”
There is very little physicality among the forward group, and even though the defense corps has improved somewhat, there are nights when the errors are glaring. The Leafs also have a propensity for failing to start games on time and often seem to play with the attitude that their skill will be enough to win games singlehandedly. And sometimes that’s exactly what they do, with the Leafs often putting in 10 to 15 minutes of quality work and having that be enough to win a game.
This is a team, Tavares included, that has not experienced a whole lot of playoff success. And there’s that little detail of likely having to get past Boston and Tampa Bay along the playoff path. Yikes.
X-Factor: Frederik Andersen has some major doubters to prove wrong in the playoffs. In last year’s first-round loss to the Bruins, he was porous, allowing 23 goals in seven games with an .896 save percentage. And when the Leafs needed him most in Game 7, he wilted. The Leafs don’t require superhuman goaltending to have playoff success, but they’re not good enough to be able to overcome goaltending that is a detriment. Toronto will be looking for the Andersen who backstopped Anaheim in the playoffs, not the one who faltered the past two years.
Nov. 10, 2018 – BOS 5, TOR 1
Nov. 26, 2018 – TOR 4, BOS 2
Dec. 8, 2018 – BOS 6, TOR 3
Jan. 12, 2019 – BOS 3, TOR 2
Thursday, April 11, 7 p.m.: Maple Leafs at Bruins
Saturday, April 13, 8 p.m.: Maple Leafs at Bruins
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Bruins at Maple Leafs
Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m.: Bruins at Maple Leafs
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Maple Leafs at Bruins
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Bruins at Maple Leafs
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Maple Leafs at Bruins
(All games listed in Eastern Time)
Fan Favorite: Boston Bruins
THN Series Pick: Boston Bruins in six