For consecutive seasons and the third time since 2013, the Toronto Maple Leafs clash with the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After Boston eliminated Toronto in seven games last spring, the Leafs will have another chance to exercise their demons from the 2013 Game 7 nightmare. That was the game Toronto had a 4-1 lead in the third period, only to lose 5-4 in overtime.
The Leafs went 1-3 in this year’s season series against the Bruins with two blowout losses in Boston 5-1 and 6-3 respectively. Toronto cannot afford to repeat those games in the playoffs as they have to win at least one game in Boston to advance to the second round, which they have not done in 15 years.
The Leafs have to prove to the media, their fans and most importantly, themselves, that they can eliminate the big bad Bruins. For that to happen, the Leafs need to accomplish three things:
Pummel them offensively: The Maple Leafs lit the lamp a lot this season. They finished the year fourth with 3.49 goals per game and eighth in power-play percentage with 21.8%. The Leafs consistently buried the puck behind the goalies back thanks to off-season acquisition center John Tavares. In his first season, he scored career-high 47 goals, the most by a Leaf since Dave Andreychuk scored 53 goals in 1993-94 season. Adding Tavares with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly, the Leafs are an offensive powerhouse. But it will not mean anything if they cannot score against Bruins goalie, Tuukka Rask, who finished the season 27-13-5 with a .912 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average (GAA).
In this series, when power-plays, odd-man rushes, and grade “A” scoring chances present themselves, take advantage. It will be a mistake to not capitalize on opportunities because the Bruins are also an offensive juggernaut finishing the season eleventh with 3.13 goals per game and third in power-play percentage with 25.9%. The Leafs have to slow them down which leads into the second thing Toronto has to do in eliminating Boston.
Defend like never before: A recurring weakness for the Leafs is their defense. It was their defense that let them down in the 2013 game 7, and in the seventh game of last years series where the series-clinching goal was Bruin’s defenceman, Torey Krug, blew by Leafs defenceman, Jake Gardiner, and buried the puck past Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen. The Leafs finished this season 12th in goals against per game with 3.04; unlike Boston who gave up third fewest goals per game at 2.59. The Leafs best defender will have to be Andersen, which leads into the third thing the Leafs must do in eliminating Boston.
Frederik Andersen has to stand on his head: Andersen had another great season, finishing the year with a 36-16-7 record with a .917 save percentage and 2.77 GAA. But in the month of March, he posted a .890 save percentage which is not good. Also, the playoffs are a different season, a much harder season. In the seven-game series last year against the Bruins, Andersen went 3-3 with a .896 save percentage and 3.76 GAA. Back-up goalie, Curtis McElhinney suffered the other loss. Andersen has to play the best hockey of his life and give the Bruins no hope that they can send Toronto packing once again.
Accomplishing these three things is easier said than done but if the Leafs achieve them, they will eliminate the Bruins and breathe a sigh of relief in exorcizing their demons.