To the surprise of no one, the Toronto Maple Leafs will meet the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. This marks the second straight year Toronto has met Boston in the first round, plus the third time since 2013. The Maple Leafs lost in seven games to the Bruins twice (2013 and 2018) and may be in for more of the same if they can’t correct a late-season loss of momentum.
Case in point: Toronto slipped to 4-7-3 in their last 14 games, compared to the Bruins’ 22-7-4 run since the end of January. Boston even pressed a 19-game point streak from January 29 to March 9, while the Leafs just seemed to stumble.
It’s true that this year’s model of the Maple Leafs is superior to last season’s. John Tavares is the key acquisition and his play has been phenomenal. He set a career high with 47 goals and achieved 88 points. With Tavares on their side, Toronto is hoping for a little more playoff success. They haven’t escaped the first round since 2004, after all.
But if we’re being honest, we know it won’t be easy. The Bruins are among the stingiest teams in the NHL, allowing just 2.585 goals against per game. That’ll come up against Toronto’s scorching offence, which scores 3.488 goals a game. If the battle of offence versus defence does take hold, Boston may still hold the slight edge. Toronto’s defence, with the 20th overall goals against average per game, may not withstand the Bruins’ capable power.
The Bruins can score and achieved 11th overall in the category this season. They have three players with over 30 goals and five above 20 goals. David Pastrnak leads the way with 38 goals and 81 points in 66 games, a career best. He scored a whopping 17 power play goals.
Brad Marchand had 36 goals. He’ll round out his persona in the playoffs and will probably grab headlines in Toronto, but he can also find the net. Marchand hit 100 points for the first time in his career, with 34 points on the power play. He can get under the skin of his opponents.
Patrice Bergeron, ever the proficient veteran, had 32 goals and a total of 79 points in 65 games. He is dynamite in all situations. Boston will also use Jake DeBrusk, who scored 27 goals this season, and his presence bolsters secondary scoring along with Marcus Johansson.
Tavares’ 47 goals lead his club and his contributions are incontestable. This year’s playoffs will give him a chance to shine and put his efforts toward a definite purpose, so expect him to be driven beyond words. Mitch Marner, who leads the Leafs in points, will also find new vision. The forward is bound to build on shot-taking opportunities.
Auston Matthews, like Tavares and Marner, scores above a point-per-game pace. The 21-year-old posted a career best 73 points in 68 games. Had injuries not kept him down, he would’ve surely eclipsed those totals and led the Maple Leafs in scoring. In the post-season against Boston, he has unfinished business.
The plan is as it always was and that may present a problem. This is a squad that hopes to score and score often, but playoff hockey pushes a different button and they may run into misfortune against a possession-heavy Bruins team. While Tavares, Matthews and Marner can score and the defence can help drive the attack, Toronto’s speed will have to come into play. Fatigue and toughness may be issues.
If the assessment for the Maple Leafs forward group is on the harsh side, it’s because facing Boston’s defence is no picnic. The Bruins have miles of experience and are battle-hardened, with the likes of Zdeno Chara still patrolling that blueline with expert grit. That said, they may not have a counter for the speedy Maple Leafs and could find themselves flat-footed.
Of course, a team doesn’t reach third overall in goals against by having a stationary defensive core. The Bruins have shown, time and time again, that they can compete and physically outdo their opponents. The pairing of Chara and Charlie McAvoy can be a quality one-two punch, while Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug give them options.
The penalty kill is a bit of a problem, operating at just 79.9 percent. If they get in tough against the Toronto power play, an estimable 21.8 percent, they’ll have to tighten up and watch the play in the corners. They can get outhustled if they don’t play a gruelling physical game.
Conventional wisdom tells us that Toronto has a weak-ish defence. That’s somewhat true, but the group’s not as bad as advertised. The Maple Leafs can work a smooth transition game out of their own zone and their five-on-five goal differential is among the best in the league because of that.
But if we’re being honest, we know that Toronto can be the sort of team to get lulled into complacency. That means long stretches during which the defence takes a few shifts off. Against the Bruins in the playoffs, that won’t work. The Maple Leafs need Jake Gardiner back in form and there’s every sign that Mike Babcock intends to use him a lot.
Toronto acquired blueliner Jake Muzzin from the Kings and he’s been great. He can move the puck well and gets out of trouble in a hurry. Averaging 21:20 of ice time a game, you can bet he’ll see plenty of tough assignments against Boston’s top line.
The Bruins will go with veteran Tuukka Rask, a consummate playoff performer. The Savonlinna native put up a 2.48 goals against average and a .912 save percentage, but he allowed five goals in a nothing game against Tampa on Saturday. It was a rare lapse, one that shouldn’t have lasting impact.
At one point in the season, Rask lost the starting job to Jaroslav Halak. It was immaterial in the long run, but Halak took his chance well. He finished the season 22-11-4 with a .922 save percentage and a 2.34 goals against average.
For Toronto, it’s complicated. Frederik Andersen should be the goalie of repute, but there are issues. He had an awful month in March, for example, and has gone on record as feeling a little worn out in the crease. Any softness means trouble in the playoffs, so look for the Bruins to get in his kitchen early. If he can weather the storm, he could pull back into fine form.
If not, questions remain. The Maple Leafs are carrying three goalies, which puts Michael Hutchinson and Garret Sparks in the mix. The latter is ineligible for the Calder Cup playoffs, while Hutchinson needs waivers to go back to the AHL. Signs point to Hutchinson getting the backup nod for Andersen, at least at first.
As much as everyone loves a positive story, this is a tough series to call. The Bruins are as ready as any team for the Maple Leafs’ offensive show. Boston is more experienced and holds a harder approach, which may not bode well if the Leafs can’t run a speed game. If the Bruins grind them out, the Maple Leafs are done.
But intangibles matter, too, and that’s why Toronto will still take this series in six games.
(Photo credit: NHL)