Bruins-Maple Leafs: breaking down the matchups
Other than a brief stint atop the Atlantic Division, the Boston Bruins seemed inevitably destined to face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That matchup becomes reality Thursday night when the two teams begin their seven-game series at TD Garden.
Yes, the mentions of a certain Game 7 five years ago are fresh in everyone’s mind, but, to state the obvious, the two teams have taken different paths to get to this point. Sure, some faces like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak are still present, but both squads have injected more youth into their lineups to complement their veteran leadership.
Of all eight first-round series, the Bruins-Maple Leafs matchup is most likely to go the distance.
The Leafs won three of four against the Bruins during the regular season. Will that success carry over into the postseason? Or will the Bruins’ depth be able to counter Toronto’s potent attack and go into round two?
Those are just a couple of questions heading into Game 1 Thursday night. There will be more questions as the series progresses. For now, let’s break down the matchup.
Toronto’s young crop of forwards are as good as they come, but the Bruins young wings and centers aren’t far behind. Auston Matthews is the centerpiece of the fountain of youth, while Zach Hyman, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen (and perhaps Ryan Donato if he dresses at some point in the series) should all see significant minutes.
Oddly enough, the Bruins beat the Leafs in Matthews’ only appearance against Boston. The Bruins’ top line of Pastrnak, Bergeron and Marchand kept the Matthews trio in check on Feb. 3.
But the Leafs depth wore the Bruins out in the three other meetings. Whether its van Riemsdyk continuing to haunt the Black and Gold or Nazim Kadri getting under Boston’s skin, Toronto’s second, third and fourth lines got the job done without Matthews in those three matchups.
Both teams will have some new blood with Rick Nash likely returning to the Bruins’ top-six and Tomas Plekanec, while only tallying two assists since coming to Toronto, has a solid history against the B’s in past playoff meetings during his days in Montreal. Given Toronto’s success in the four matchups, we’ll give the Leafs the first checkmark.
For all of their talent on offense, the blue-line is likely to be the Leafs’ Achilles heel. Even with decent puck moving options like Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, the Leafs blue-line still spends more time in the defensive zone while allowing 33.9 shots per game — the most out of all 16 playoff teams.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have allowed the fewest shots per game of all 16 playoff teams (29.3). Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy are a formidable top pair. Torey Krug, Matt Grzelcyk, Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid and Nick Holden are all good second and third pairing options. Holden is the odd man out in this scenario, but that’s a good problem to have for Bruce Cassidy.
Losing Brandon Carlo (left ankle fracture) may hurt in the long run, but the Bruins D still has the edge here.
Frederik Andersen has had to bail the Leafs out more often than not. Tuukka Rask has the benefit of having an active D in front of him.
Their track records against one another have been quite different, however. Andersen suffered his first career loss against the Black and Gold on Feb. 3. Rask has lost five of his last six against the team that selected him in the first round back in 2005.
Andersen would like nothing more than to continue his track record and a list that includes Jose Theodore and Braden Holtby as Bruins killers. As for Rask, his critics will never admit that they’re wrong, but he certainly needs to find his groove again after a rough last week of the 2017-18 campaign.
Whether it was making way for Anton Khudobin in November or bouncing back from an early-season injury, Rask has responded well to adversity in 2017-18. He’s still a solid goaltender, but Andersen’s career success against Boston makes this a toss up — and something that could very well decide the series.
“Staying out of the box” is another hockey cliche, but it’s a sentiment worth repeating, especially during the playoffs.
Both teams are near the top of the league on the power play with the Leafs finishing the year with a 25 percent success rate (good for second in the NHL only behind the Penguins) and the Bruins scoring on 23.5 percent of their man advantages (fourth). Their penalty kill units were just as good with the Bruins finishing third at 83.7 percent and the Leafs 11th at 81.4 percent.
If the matchups are any indication, though, the Leafs should have the edge as their power play found the back of the net five times in 16 chances while their PK allowed three goals on 13 attempts, including a perfect 2-for-2 showing in the final matchup of the year on Feb. 24.
Even with a blip against the Leafs, the Bruins’ PK comes in red-hot having allowed just one goal in their last 35 attempts. Their power play has been just as efficient scoring in all but one of their last eight games.
The one good thing for the Bruins? Toronto doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on the power play. Their 224 attempts placed them 29th while their 353:32 of total power play team ranked dead last.
The Bruins have made their special teams a weapon under Cassidy. The Leafs aren’t too far behind, but the B’s have more options to use on both power play and penalty kill units.
Cassidy would easily be the Jack Adams Award recipient if it wasn’t for the stellar job Gerard Gallant did in his first year with the Vegas Golden Knights. From getting the team to buy into ‘next man up’ after all their injuries to going with Khudobin in November, Cassidy’s decisions have put the Black and Gold in this spot.
Of course, Mike Babcock is no slouch either. He has a Stanley Cup ring and two additional Cup Final appearances on his impressive resume. Like Cassidy, Babcock had to make some tough decisions and help his team overcome the injury bug in 2017-18.
Both teams are well ahead of schedule in terms of opening their Cup window. Babcock has the track record and Cassidy’s decision to sit Donato to start the series is a bit of a head-scratcher. Babcock’s experience gives the Leafs a slight leg up here.