The National Hockey League’s playoff format is a cruel, snarling beast.
Rather than the Maple Leafs being rewarded for their best-ever regular season with a chill, cake-walky first-round opponent when the playoffs get going next week, the team will find itself staring down either the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning in their opening series which, frankly, isn’t good.
Neither presents a favourable matchup for Toronto, as both juggernauts have taken their turns looking like the runaway best team in the East this season and both, at times, have boasted the on-ice dominance of a Stanley Cup front-runner. Boston and Tampa Bay have legit Hart trophy candidates leading their respective clubs, players in the running for multiple other major awards, lights-out goaltending, and 6-foot-7-plus behemoths manning the blue lines. Not ideal.
Earlier, we looked at what a potential Leafs-Lightning matchup looks like. Here’s what a meeting with the Bruins could bring:
Who had the edge? Despite having the edge in wins and head-to-head points this year, the Maple Leafs were outshot by the Bruins in three of four matchups this season—though not by a lot. Toronto took an overtime victory and a 4-1 win in a back-to-back clash in November, while Boston grabbed a 4-1 win of its own a couple months later. In the most recent meeting at the end of February, Toronto claimed the season series on a Ron Hainsey goal with under two minutes left.
The Leafs hold a small advantage in the head-to-head showdown this year (one of those was an overtime win), but that record is thanks in large part to the play of Freddie Andersen and Curtis McElhinney, who collectively posted a .921 save percentage against the Bruins despite being out-shot and out-chanced over the four contests. It came down to goaltending in the regular season, and that could very well be the x-factor in the first round, too.
Toronto has matched up quite well overall with Boston in 2017-18, but there’s a few facets of the Bruins’ makeup that will certainly give the Leafs some problems if the two clash in the first round.
Cons of a Bruins matchup
Deadly first line. Though they’ve taken some time apart this season due to injuries and suspension, David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron—the best all-around forward on the planet, and Brad Marchand—a legitimate Hart Trophy Candidate, have comprised the best top line in the NHL for the better part of this campaign. Boasting a combination of speed, immense skill, defensive prowess and next-level feistiness, Toronto will have to pump a lot of its defensive resources into trying to stymie the trio, and don’t really have the horses on the back-end to match up with this murderer’s row on a shift-by-shift basis over a seven-game tilt.
Playoff pedigree. Put into this what you will, but there’s absolutely no doubt you’d rather waltz into the postseason with a roster jacked full of guys oozing with Stanley Cup Playoff experience than one with only a few games collectively under their belts. Unfortunately for the Leafs, they possess the latter and may have to tango with a Boston club with hundreds of games of playoff experience and a few Stanley Cup rings in the vault.
Past history. Wait, that Game 7 collapse happened way back in 2013 and very few players from either roster, especially Toronto’s, remain. Scratch that.
Pros of a Bruins matchup
Overall offensive depth. As savage as that top unit for the Bruins has been, there’s quite a dip in production after the Big 3, with a substantial 13 goal drop-off after Bergeron and only one other 20-goal scorer in Rick Nash, whose health is a big question mark right now and who netted most of those tallies as a member of the Rangers. Toronto, on the other hand, boasts three 30-goal guys of their own and six 20-goal scorers this season. If the Maple Leafs can shut down (as much as possible) the Bruins deadly first line, there’s not a lot of firepower left to deal with after that. Rather than stacking the deck and flooding the top unit with its best offensive weapons like Boston does, Toronto has its wealth spread over three solid units, including a second and third line anchored by Nazem Kadri (31 goals) and JVR (36 goals), respectively.
James Van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner. Both JVR and Marner have torched the Bruins this year unlike any other forwards from across the league have. Marner has been especially dominant against Boston, posting three goals and nine points in just four games against the B’s—four points better than what any other skater did versus the Bruins this season. Van Riemsdyk, meanwhile, finished tied as the second-most productive skater against Boston this season, netting five points and three goals, including a game-winner, in four contests.
Mike Babcock. Dude has a Stanley Cup ring, a couple Olympic gold medals, and an ass-load of Stanley Cup Playoff experience. Bruce Cassidy has 12 playoff games and a .333 wining percentage behind the bench in the postseason. I’ll take Babs.