Maple Leafs – Bruins series preview

James Reimer is indubitably the key to victory. Photo via CP

For a while towards the end of the season, the fates were leading the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs on a collision course that would have surely torn apart the fabric of our nation, and ended up with Québec drifting out into the sea. But after an unlikely chain of events on Saturday—the Boston Bruins blowing a two-goal lead against the Washington Capitals and the capitulation of the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens—the stage was set Sunday for the Senators and Bruins to determine the Leafs’ fate.

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So, so much has gone right for the Maple Leafs this season, and sparing the clichés about the Buds being ready to play against any opponent in the first round… it’s clear that the final game of the season between Ottawa and Boston didn’t break the way they were hoping. Instead of a dream matchup against the Canadiens—both a ratings bonanza and a team whose weaknesses play into the Leafs’ strengths—Toronto ended up drawing Boston. 

We know the Bruins recent record against the Leafs, but what we don’t know is how the Leafs can beat the Bruins over a seven-game series or how it will break down, line-by-line and matchup-by-matchup. Our detailed preview is below the jump…

For years the Boston Bruins relied on the goaltending of Tim Thomas. Like Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy before him, Thomas had an unconventional style, was at odds with the media and coaches in his town and each had a well-publicized exit from their signature teams. Like Hasek and Roy, Thomas was also really, really good, and no goaltender can come closing to match the save percentage marks left by Thomas over his seven years in Beantown.

And no, nobody will ever come close to eclipsing Thomas’ .938 over 57 games in the 2010-2011 season, followed up with an even higher .940 in the playoffs to lead the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup since 1972.

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Predicting goaltending is a fool’s errand. It’s recognizable when it’s there and even more recognizable when it isn’t. There’s a prevailing myth that team defences can influence goaltender save percentages: why, for years, would both Bruins goaltenders have such good percentanges and both Leafs goaltenders be so miserable? That myth has been disproven at a macro level by Vic Ferrari years ago. Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in 2009 and 2011, but was the back-up in 2010 as he struggled and Tuukka Rask, a former first round pick, took over the reins.

The Bruins and the Leafs have been at opposite ends of this myth for years. 

Now that the Leafs have caught up to Boston, and have a goaltender named James Reimer who can indubitably match the performance of Tuukka Rask over a seven-game set, the difference between the teams comes from how the teams have added talent over the last several years. 

Boston relishes the mindset that they’re the tough, ‘Big Bad Bruins’ of old times, and the perception plays into their hands as teams bulk up in games against the Bruins. In actuality, their strength now comes from their forward core, which is two scoring lines deep. Their strength comes from their ultimate shut down defenceman, a 6’9″ behemoth whose size, speed and strength can strike fear into opposing forwards and defenders. His innate ability to move the puck forward and shut down the opposition’s top players give Boston a significant advantage.

This is a tough matchup for the Leafs, in that the Boston Bruins are good at all of the things that the Leafs are good at, and they are also good at the things that the Leafs aren’t good at. The Leafs are big and tough. The Leafs have a good first scoring line. The Leafs have a good No. 1 defenceman. The Bruins are all of these things and more. Their 54.0% Corsi Tied rate was the sixth highest in hockey in 2013, meaning they had the puck more than every team in the Eastern Conference save New Jersey and Montreal. They had a lame second half record-wise—after starting 19-4-3 they finished 9-7-3 in the final 19, ceding the division title. 

But the obvious thing to take away: they have a goaltender in Rask who has led the NHL in save percentage in the past (2010), who was .929 on the season and dipped below .916 in a seven-game segment just twice on the season. They had the 23rd highest shooting percentage in the NHL and still managed the four-seed. Nothing went in the other team’s net but they were buzzing all year. Toughness aside, they’re a formidable foe. 

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I don’t like to look at head-to-head records alone to determine which team out-played the other. While wins are, ultimately, what matters, keep in mind that the Bruins beat the Leafs once when Toronto had Ben Scrivens in net, and Toronto beat the Bruins this year with their backup Anton Khudobin allowing 3 goals on 11 shots.

The Bruins, it is worthy to note, failed to beat the Leafs by two or more non-empty net goals on four occasions this season, which qualifies as “small victories” for the Leafs considering they were beaten on by the Bruins a year ago. Not counting Tyler Seguin’s empty net goal, or any shootout tally, the Bruins out-scored the Leafs 7-8 on the year, and out-shot Toronto 86-101. At even strength situations, the Leafs were out-scored just 6-7, but out-shot (missed shots included) 104-161. If it’s “quality shots” that are your jam, I recorded the scoring chances in all four Leafs-Bruins games this season. Toronto was out-chanced 27-54 at even strength and 35-63 overall.

Frankly, the head-to-head series doesn’t flatter the Leafs in any way. If the Bruins could find a way to score a goal this season, they’d be much higher up in the standings, but all they’ve been doing is buzz and can’t finish. Reimer had three quality starts, and Scrivens a fourth, against the Leafs this season and that’s exactly the goaltending they’ll need to allow this series to advance to six or seven games, or to the second round. Suffice to say, even without the Bruins sticks working this season they were 8 games above .500 in a 48-game season and competed for the division until the final day in what was the toughest in hockey.

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Claude Julien doesn’t match lines like Randy Carlyle does. He tries to get one of his scoring lines, made up of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, set up with as many offensive zone opportunities as possible.

What this sets up is Patrice Bergeron starting typically at the defensive zone of the ice, usually with talented scoring wingers Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand. While those three are frequently found on the score sheet, they do some work shutting down opposing top players as well. Since coaches tend to put their best offensive players on the ice for offensive zone faceoffs, Bergeron is usually the one to be taking draws against them, and he has excellent possession stats over his six years in the game. The Bruins have got 61.6% of the total unblocked shots with Bergeron on the ice this season.

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Perhaps though in a playoff series, Claude Julien could be compelled to match Bergeron up exclusively against another player, say, a dynamic scoring winger over the case of a seven-game playoff series.

That doesn’t appear to be the case, however:

Bergeron didn’t see a lot of ice time against Alex Ovechkin in the Bruins first-round defeat to the Washington Capitals last season, particularly as the series wore on. While it looked like Julien was going for a hard match in Game One of the series, that fell off in Game Two, and in Games Five and Seven, also at home, it didn’t look like Julien even bothered.

Faceoff zones, though, I looked and charted what percentage of overall draws in each zone Bergeron took. That is to say, if the Bruins had 10 offensive zone draws and Bergeron took 5 of them, it would be 50%. If the Bruins had 18 defensive zone draws and Bergeron took 12, that would be 67%:

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With the exception of Game Six, there’s a more consistent trend. Inexplicably, Claude Julien used David Krejci in defensive situations in the sixth game of that series, but primarily Bergeron matched against whoever Dale Hunter sent out to play hockey.

On defence, though, Zdeno Chara is the Grand Poobah of matchups. While Bergeron played just 39.2% of his ice-time against Ovechkin (working out to about 41 minutes over seven games) Chara saw 57.3% of his ice-time in the 2012 playoffs against him (working out to a little over 84 minutes). This trend will likely continue against Phil Kessel. Less versus Bergeron, more versus Chara.

The wrinkle is that if the Leafs don’t get to go with Tyler Bozak, then that cuts down the number of shifts that the Leafs top line will start in the defensive end of the ice, which could result in more offensive starts and more time against the puck-controlling, offensively-dangerous Patrice Bergeron. But the matchup Carlyle needs to avoid is Kessel vs. Chara. We’ve pointed out that this is not a good combination. Having Kessel losing 20% of his scoring hurts you far worse than having, say Nik Kulemin lose 20% of his scoring out against Big Z.

Matchup data for Bergeron during last year’s playoffs from the “Zone Starts” and “Head to Head” tracker from Easily accessible data here.

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Let’s break this down into the simple chart I’ve used throughout the season, mainly because I feel I’ve undersold Tuukka Rask all year. As good as James Reimer has been, Rask has been fantastic:

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  Save % EV SV% Quality Start Rate Starts Quality Starts
Tuukka Rask 0.929 0.938 76.47% 34 26
James Reimer 0.924 0.928 58.06% 31 18

A “quality start” is a Hockey Prospectus metric. A goaltender is credited with a “quality start” when he stops at least 91.3% of pucks in any given game, or stops 88.5% of pucks and allows no more than two goals against. Rask has just eight starts that wouldn’t qualify as quality. 

On the flip side of the coin, Nations writer Thomas Drance began referring to starts where a goaltender failed to stop 85% of pucks as a “blow up”. Rask was blown up four times this season and Reimer just twice. Rask is the more inconsistent goaltender in this regard which is a blessing when it comes to the post-season: he can be more “all or nothing” although this season he’s trended towards the “all”.

When he treads down the path towards “nothing” out come the milk crates:

That resonates as the funniest hockey clip I’ve ever seen.

Rask fluctuates between years of being “average” and “great” and is on the “great” scale this season. The Leafs have had to face Anton Khudobin twice, and were shutout by Rask 1-0 back on February 2. Actually, Rask and Reimer have combined for five quality starts in five games against the Leafs and Bruins, respectively. It’s been a well-goaltended season series which has contributed to the low scoring. If that continues, we could be seeing a lot of continuous overtime.

The Bruins have the edge, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Reimer puts in a very good series. The Bruins were beaten last season by an inexperienced Braden Holtby, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Reimer steals a game or two.

Goaltending even strength stats from Quality start information from Hockey Reference game logs.


Here are the important numbers:

  Boston Toronto
PP Success 14.8% (26th) 18.7% (14th)
5v4 GF/60 4.87 (23rd) 6.43 (15th)
5v4 SF/60 48.1 (15th) 43.3 (24th)
PK Success 87.1% (4th) 87.9% (2nd)
4v5 GA/60 3.91 (2nd) 4.33 (3rd)
4v5 SA/60 39.1 (3rd) 41.9 (5th)

The Bruins are better at 4-on-5 shot rates and goal rates than the Leafs, even if Toronto has a higher success rate. That said, the Leafs’ better powerplay gives them a slight advantage over Boston at special teams in this series. Considering the teams both have fairly strong penalty kills, I wouldn’t expect powerplays to be too much of a predictive factor.

I never got a chance to show off my research because the Leafs’ PK entered a cold streak at the end of the season giving up multiple scoring chances per game, that was almost unheard of between Games 5 and 40, but the Leafs do pressure the points much more effectively on the PK than they did last season, forcing opponents into making bad passes and forcing the offence.

That’s important against the Bruins, who are good at entries and gaining control, but ultimately fail inside the zone. The Bruins have had a bleak powerplay for three years now and it’s tough to figure out why given the depth of their talent and the cannon they possess at the point.

Slight edge to the Leafs.

Special teams shot and goal rates from Hockey Analysis. Success rates from


The way that Randy Carlyle has managed his bench on D has been a point of contention throughout the season. Generally he’s played Dion Phaneuf and whoever drew the short straw out against opposing top lines. Cody Franson and Mark Fraser worked their way into second pairing minutes this season and are generally getting beaten in scoring chances in those minutes, while the third pairing is a rotation between John-Michael Liles and Jake Gardiner on the left side with Ryan O’Byrne and Mike Kostka on the right.

Chara will play close to 25 minutes most nights alongside Johnny Boychuk. It took the Bruins the addition of Wade Redden at the trade deadline to give Dennis Seidenberg a common second-pairing player. This has led to yet another demotion for Dougie Hamilton, who missed two straight games as Adam McQuaid and Andrew Ference have played on the bottom pairing.

Hamilton has five goals and 16 points on the season, but generally he played a fairly sheltered role in the Bruins lineup not unlike the one Seguin played during the B’s 2011 Cup run. Seguin was sheltered and when he did play, was lined up with veterans like Mark Rechhi and Michael Ryder, or with checkers Chris Kelly and Shawn Thornton. He played just 12:13 per game, 14th on the team. Julien is carrying along Hamilton in similar fashion—17:07 is 5th on the team in defensive ice time and while he’ll see some powerplay time with Chara, at even strength his role is muted and he’ll generally play against checkers.

Since Big Z matches up so much against top forwards, that leaves little for McQuaid and Andrew Ference to do on the back-end. They play against the Frans Nielsens and Jason Chimeras of the world, and depending on how the Leafs lineup shakes down, could see some minutes against the new-look third line of Joe Colborne, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin.

Phaneuf has spent most of his time against the Bruins this season checking the second line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic. Since Julien tends to keep them in offensive situations, and Phaneuf tends to get a lot of defensive zone minutes I’d expect that match to continue.

Further down the depth chart, this could mean that Franson and Fraser will have to go head-to-head against Bergeron & Co. which isn’t a matchup that the Leafs should want, but it’s one that they were forced into because Dave Nonis failed to pick up another Top Four defenceman at the deadline.

The edge goes to Boston by far. They have the better No. 1, and are stronger everywhere you go down the depth chart until you reach No. 7, where I might take Gardiner over Hamilton based on age. The problem is that Gardiner is really the Leafs’ No. 3 and he hasn’t been playing recently, and where was the indication in the last three games that that trend would change?


The Bruins missed out on Jarome Iginla a week ahead of the deadline. Everybody went to sleep hearing that Iginla had been traded for Alexandr Khokhlachev and Matt Bartkowski, and woke up seeing that Iggy had gone to Pittsburgh.

But Boston wasn’t silenced after losing Iginla, getting the likely superior Jaromir Jagr out of Dallas, and bringing their overseas 27-year-old prospect Carl Soderberg out of Sweden from Linkoping. Soderberg led his Swedish Elite League team in scoring although Soderberg has started slow with just two goals in six games.

With an injury to Nathan Horton, Julien moved Rich Peverley onto the second line and played Jagr and Soderberg with ex-checking centreman Chris Kelly, who has struggled to do everything this year from scoring goals to taking shots, but Jagr on that line makes anybody dangerous. Like Kessel, he’s an underrated playmaker who carries the puck in over the line a lot and is a terrific guy to have on the third line since he’ll eat up third pairing defencemen.

Horton appears he may be back in the lineup soon, re-united Krejci and Lucic with their familiar mate.

The Leafs have the best offensive forward in the group in Phil Kessel and possibly the second in Joffrey Lupul, but where the Bruins forwards really match up well against the Leafs is that they’re superior on D. Bergeron should be a perennial Selke Trophy candidate. Only Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton, among regular Bruins, have a negative Corsi number. This is a team that has the puck a lot.

On “O”, it’s Marchand and Seguin. Both players have a reason to give the Leafs headaches. Marchand gets chippy in long playoff series and takes on the ‘pest’ role while the drama surrounding Seguin and Kessel just feeds into Seguin’s teenage cockiness. Our own Steve Dangle has been chirped by Seguin in the past and hopefully Steve gets to tell that story at some point.

Then the other “X”-Factor is Milan Lucic. Lucic has just 7 goals on the year, but his 8.9% shooting rate was well below his NHL norm. Gone from first liner to key player on a Cup champion to healthy scratch over the span of three years, he’s seen about it all, and remains the prototypical “hockey player” with size and skill that general managers all over the league slobber about. Surely the original isn’t broken after 46 games of use in a short season, is it?

Toronto may have to start with Bozak on the shelf so that moves Nazem Kadri up to the top line. It could result in a seismic shift in the way the Leafs’ lineup is deployed. Mikhail Grabovski is a good two-way talent who struggled to find minutes this season under Carlyle and his numbers, both counting and underlying, suffered as a result. He was mostly used in a checking role with Nik Kulemin and either Jay McClement or Leo Komarov taking draws in the defensive zone when McClement was kicked out of the circle and didn’t venture past centre.

But if he’s forced onto the second line and Joe Colborne gets to play with MacArthur and Frattin that’s been a fun little line for two games, Carlyle may be left with no choice but to try and match Grabovski up mano-a-mano—likely against Krejci—and try and control at least one of the matchups. Carlyle knows that Grabovski was one of the Leafs’ best players between 2010 and 2012 and no small sample should change that belief.

Finally, questions abound for whether Carlyle will bring out Frazer McLaren or not. With Bozak out, it’s almost assure that Colton Orr will have to be in the lineup as at least one facepuncher, but what about the second? Will Orr play with McClement and Komarov or will Frattin or MacArthur be scratched to accomodate a fighter that won’t play big minutes, and ESPECIALLY won’t be useful in them. Fighting drops during the postseason, or in any situation the stakes are raised, so it would surprise me if McLaren got into the lineup.

But hey, I’ve been surprised before.


The Leafs have proved me wrong time-and-time again, but there’s no lack of evidence, either visual or statistical, that will show us that the Bruins are a superior team coming into this series in nearly every facet of the game except on the powerplay. The Leafs will need a lot of things to go right: a couple of blow ups from Rask and none from Reimer, timely scoring, a working powerplay against a dominant penalty kill, and Reimer to steal four wins against a team that has out-chanced the Leafs at every opportunity this season.

At the risk of fawning too much over the Bruins’ lineup any further, I’m going to open up the comments section to no small amounts of abuse and give my prediction that the Boston Bruins will defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games, or more commonly referred to as the “gentlemen’s sweep”. Our panel’s picks can be found here.

Info for this post from various outlets including Behind the Net, Time On Ice, Hockey Analysis, Hockey Reference,

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  • Jercorm

    Thanks for this breakdown, Cam. I agree with you: Toronto might make a series out of this and maybe even force a game seven, but I don’t see them moving on. My biggest concern is if Reimer will face a ton of shots a night and if so, what happens then: does he stand on his head in a 1-0, 2-1 Leafs win or does everything fall apart in a 5-2 loss (But maybe I’m being a bit pessimistic).

    At the end of the day, I’m just glad Toronto’s in the postseason. It’s been a while.

  • Jercorm

    This is an excellent breakdown. There is a good chance the Bruins will win this series, but given this is likely to be a testosterone filled affair, it’s going to be interesting to see how much things like “momentum” impact the outcome. A few injuries, bad goals, or general lack of composure can really sandbag a team. Rask’s furry is potentially a huge wild-card here.

    I worked as an economist for a number of years, and the human factor throws a giant wrench in predictive metrics. People do illogical things all of the time,and there are always outliers.

    The weight that teams give to Leaf thuggery suggests there’s something to it in terms of contributing to a winning model. Folks in the advanced stats world scoff at that kind of assertion, but possessing the puck more means squat when you get a fist in the mouth, or you’re always in constant fear of that happening.

  • The Boston D pairings are actually a bit different. Seidenberg and Chara will be the top pair and will likely play close to half the game. Boychuck and Ference will be the number 2 pair and Redden/McQuaid the bottom pair.