Let’s not kid ourselves here. The Leafs got completely screwed by the NHL this season. Instead of facing the fifth best team in the conference, the Leafs will instead be facing the second best team in the Boston Bruins. In a league that actually made sense, that wouldn’t happen, but this is the NHL, so everything is as stupid as possible.
Regardless, the Leafs are getting their long awaited rematch against the Bruins, with a chance to exorcise the demons that still exist in five players on this team. It should be one of the best series in the first round, much to the excitement of hockey fans, and the dismay of Leafs and Bruins fans.
Despite being the higher seed, the Leafs went 3-1 against Boston, with all three wins coming without Auston Matthews in the lineup. So, I’m telling you there’s a chance. Boston might be the better team overall, but it’s not insane to say that the Leafs could beat them.
So, let’s look at what the Leafs need to do to beat the Bruins.
Shut down the Bergeron line
Among lines with at least 400 5v5 minutes together, the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line has the fourth highest CF% at 58.01%, and the 15th best xGF% at 53.5% (although it should be noted that the Bozak line is 5th and the Matthews line is 14th). It’s one of the best lines in hockey, and it makes sense. Bergeron is one of, if not the best, two way centers in the league, and he seems to have found his scoring touch in the last couple years, while Marchand has become a consistent 30-40 goal scorer these last few years, and David Pastrnak is one of the best up-and-coming wingers (even though he’s already there) in the game today.
Shutting down this line will be essential to a Leafs victory, or at the very least, containing them. The trio has a total of 99 goals, which is 36.67% of the Bruins goals this season. After Pastrnak’s 35 goals, Marchand’s 34, and Bergeron’s 30, the next highest scorer is David Krejci with 17 goals (although Rick Nash has 21 goals between the Rangers and Bruins this season).
The Leafs haven’t exactly done that with success this season. In four games, Bergeron has 2 goals, 2 assists, and a 61.86% CF%, and Pastrnak has 2 goals and 2 assists and a 60.38% CF%, while Marchand has 2 goals, 1 assists, and a 59.78% CF% in three games (he was suspended for Boston’s 4-1 win).
While the Bruins have the best line in this series, an argument could be made that the Leafs have the next best four, and that’s where they’ll beat the Bruins. Assuming that Babcock will be matching the Kadri line hard to the Bergeron line, the best we can hope is that they can contain them to minimal offense, and the Leafs can throw out any of their other three lines against any of the other three Bruins lines, and probably win the matchup. It certainly wouldn’t kill the Leafs if they didn’t pull this off, but it would make victory a lot easier for them.
Marner’s Time to Shine
In the early part of his career, Marner seems to really like playing the Bruins. In eight career games, Marner has 13 points against them, including his first career goal, and 9 points in 4 games this season. He also had a 60.49% 5v5 CF% in those four games, with two of those games coming on the shutdown line vs. the Bergeron line (mostly).
I say Mitch Marner will play a big role because how he plays against the Bruins top line will be crucial in this series. If he can not only hold his own defensively, but also continue his strong season offensively, that could essentially neutralize the Bergeron line. He doesn’t have to dominate, but play well enough to hold them off.
This isn’t to discredit either Patrick Marleau or Nazem Kadri, but more to point out that Marner is probably the main cog on that line, so he’ll play a big role in it.
Frederik Andersen Needs To Play Like Frederik Andersen
Yeah, yeah, this isn’t really a surprise. Obviously if we see October Freddy, this will be an easy sweep, but if we see November onward Freddy, this will be much closer.
It’s safe to say that Andersen has been the best player on the team this season, with Marner being the only one close to him. Andersen not only got the Leafs to their best season in franchise history, but he also did it with some pretty bad defense in front of him all season. Like most goalies, he will play a big role in helping the Leafs win the series.
If he falters, the Leafs don’t stand a chance. If he’s average, it will be much closer. If he’s stellar, it’s hard to see the Leafs not pulling out the win.
That Right Side of the Blueline Should Try and Not Suck
Now, we address the Leafs Achilles heal, that being their blueline, more specifically the right side. While the left side boasts Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, who both set career highs with 52 points each, and newcomer Travis Dermott, who already looks like a seasoned pro, the right side leaves a lot to be desired.
Between Ron Hainsey, who, after his first postseason action at 36, has been worked to the ground by Babcock; Nikita Zaitsev, who has had a less than ideal sophomore season; and Roman Polak, who was already getting his ankles broken before he literally got his ankle broken last playoffs; the right side is awful, to put it lightly. It doesn’t help that Babcock doesn’t seem to realize this, and continues to run with it, even if switching one of Rielly, Gardiner, or Dermott to the left side, and bringing in Connor Carrick would be much more optimal.
But, this is what they got, and this is what they have to work with. Rielly and Hainsey have been the shutdown pair all season, but as Hainsey gets worse and worse, that might be hard to pull off.
This defense core might just decide the series. If they’re solid, the Leafs should be fine, but if they perform as badly as they have some nights, we’re in for a short series.
The power play is one of the clear advantages that the Leafs have over the Bruins. This season, the Leafs have an absurd 10.88 xGF/60 on the power play, which is 1.9 higher than the second place Carolina Hurricanes. Meanwhile, the Bruins sit in 16th with a 7.51 xGF/60. The Leafs power play is a lethal weapon like no other, even when Babcock decides to randomly toss Leo Komarov on there.
If the Leafs really want to give the Bruins problems, capitalizing on their power play opportunities will be the best way to do so, considering all of the options that the Leafs have on both units. Easier said than done, especially since Boston has a 6.17 xGA/60 on the penalty kill, which is first in the league. So, while the Leafs are good on the PP, the Bruins are good on the PK.
It will be an interesting battle, and whoever wins this one might just win the series as a whole.