The Maple Leafs have had quite the turnaround from their miserable state a couple of years ago, ascending to prominence behind a talented young core led by burgeoning superstar Auston Matthews. However, the Leafs have yet to break through with this core in the playoffs. They gave Washington all they could handle in the first round two years ago, and last year couldn’t quite overcome a 3-1 deficit to the rival Bruins. Having acquired superstar John Tavares in the offseason, the expectation is to not just make the playoffs, but win once they reach them and eventually hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since the original six era (1967).
Their journey yet again begins in Boston, against their old rivals, the Bruins. The Bruins have reestablished themselves as one of the titans of the east with three straight playoff appearances and two straight hundred-point seasons. The Bruins have experienced some success in the last decade or so, winning a Cup in 2011 and making another Final in 2013. The Bruins will lean on their experienced core plus some of their talented youth to bring them back to the Finals and potentially win their second Cup this decade.
These two teams have formed one of the more intense rivalries in the league after a couple of recent first-round tilts. In 2013, the Maple Leafs came back from a 3-1 series deficit and had a 4-1 lead in game 7 before collapsing and eventually giving up the series-winning goal to Patrice Bergeron in OT. Last year yielded a similar 3-1 comeback for the Leafs and a 4-3 lead heading into the 3rd period of game seven before the Bruins took over and won the game and series. Will the third time be the charm for the Leafs to exercise the demons and win their first series since 2004? Or, will Boston further solidify their dominance over the Leafs and look to try and make a deep playoff run themselves?
The Bruins offense runs mainly through the top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand, who had 81, 79, and 100 points this year, respectively. This prolific top line accounts for much of the production that the Bruins had throughout the course of the season, a team which averaged 3.13 goals per game, good for 11th in the league. When some of their top guys were injured, some of the depth scoring picked up and accounted for the loss; however, with the top line healthy again, will the Bruins revert to being a one-line team as depth scoring vanishes?
Meanwhile, the Leafs boast an incredibly talented complement of forwards that produced at a clip of 3.49 goals per game, fourth best in the league. Their top two lines could arguably be interchanged for each other as the top line, as both contain some staggering firepower: if you can somehow contain the likes of Mitch Marner and John Tavares, Auston Matthews waits right behind you with guys like Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander. The bottom six can also chip in and provide some offense if need be, and defenseman Morgan Rielly had a phenomenal 72 point campaign from the blue line. The balance throughout this lineup gives the Leafs the edge.
Advantage: Maple Leafs
The Bruins have played some outstanding lock-down defense, only allowing 2.59 goals per game, third best in the league. A mix of seasoned veteran leadership in Zdeno Chara and Jake DeBrusk combined with some new youth in guys like Charlie McAvoy has provided a balanced attack on the back end. They play disciplined and structured hockey, able to lock the opposition down but also turn them over and provide offense at the other end.
The Leafs’ biggest weakness might be the blue line, a source of much concern in Toronto. They allowed an average of 3.04 goals per game, 20th in the league, as they have focused much of their effort into building a prolific forward group. They tried to shore up their blue line by acquiring Jake Muzzin at the deadline, but injuries have recently piled up. While Morgan Rielly had a spectacular season, the blue line around him has been inconsistent, and how they will all play together once they’re all back and healthy is uncertain.
The Boston tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak has had its ups and downs throughout the year, but are more than capable of turning in some quality performances. Rask put tallied a 2.48 goals against average and a .912 save percentage, while Halak put together an even more impressive 2.34 GAA and a .922 save percentage. They should start Rask, who has plenty of experience in the playoffs, but if they need to turn to Halak, he has stolen some series in his career (notably the 2010 playoffs with Montreal).
Freddie Andersen for the Leafs began the year as a potential Vezina contender, posting some impressive numbers early on. However, injury and possibly being overworked has caused a decline in his play down the home stretch. He ended up with a respectable 2.77 GAA and a .917 save percentage, but how comfortable he will be in the playoffs remains a question. The tandem behind him does not inspire much confidence, either. If Freddie is healthy, he can very well be a difference in this series. However, I’m leaning towards the steadier and more proven commodity in Boston.
The Bruins power play, led by that lethal first line, finished as the league’s third-best at 25.9%. However, despite their lockdown defense, their penalty kill finished at an average 79.9% (16th in the league). That brings their combined special teams to 105.8%, above the average benchmark of 100%.
The Leafs, despite having tons of firepower up front, actually have a lesser power play at 21.8%. Meanwhile, their PK is identical to Boston’s at 79.9%, bringing their combined special teams to 101.7%. The stronger PP gives the advantage here to Boston.
The Bruins are coached by Bruce Cassidy, who has only coached in his fifth season, and only his third full season. He has three previous playoff appearances, but only one series win (last year vs. the Leafs). He is only 9-15 in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Mike Babcock has had some great success in the postseason, making the Cup Finals three times and winning a Cup with Detroit back in 2008. In thirteen playoff appearances, he has won fifteen series (although he has not won a series since 2013). He has only coached the Leafs for three seasons, making the playoffs twice, but never getting out of the first round. Overall, however, he has much greater experience with winning, going 87-70 in the playoffs throughout his career.\
Advantage: Maple Leafs
Nov 10-Bruins 5, Maple Leafs 1 in Boston
Nov 26-Maple Leafs 4, Bruins 2 in Toronto
Dec 8-Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 3 in Boston
Jan 12-Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 2 in Toronto
Bruins: 3-1 in season series, 2-0 at home, 1-1 at Toronto
Maple Leafs: 1-3 in season series, 1-1 at home, 0-2 at Boston
COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…
The Bruins won 7 of their last 11, including 6 in regulation. They lost their last game, a meaningless affair versus Tampa.
The Leafs lost 11 of their last 16, going 5-7-4 in this stretch. While some of these games towards the end were meaningless and involved injuries on the back-end, this could still be a significant factor.
In the last several years, this has proven to be a bad matchup for Toronto. From the two previous recent playoff encounters to the regular season matchups, this has recently yielded bad results for the Leafs. If they are going to get over the hump and get where they want to be, they need to first get past this boogeyman. The Capitals got past theirs in the Penguins; will the third time be the charm for the Leafs to do the same?
This will be a very intense and emotional series on both sides. However, with all the questions and media pressure surrounding Toronto, I feel that another first round demise at the hands of the Bruins may be in the cards. Toronto is too good a team to not win a couple of games, but when it’s all said and done, the Bruins once again assert their dominance over the Leafs, and the playoff misery lives on another year in Toronto.
Prediction: Bruins in 6
GAME ONE: Thurs, 7pm, NBCSN (nat’l), NESN (Bruins), SN (Leafs)