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Photo Credit: © Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Maple Leafs Pre-Game #9: 5 Things to Watch for in Another (Sigh) First-Round Preview

What changes ultimately stays the same.

Around this time last year, the then-surging Maple Leafs took on Bruins at TD Garden, on the second half of a back-to-back, and with Garret Sparks manning the crease. It went just about as well as anyone expected. And while the circumstances might be different this time around, that all-encompassing anxiety, the type which permeated the very core of those un-even Leafs a year prior, lingers nonetheless.

The total has gone OVER in 5 of Toronto’s last 7 games at home. – Fun fact from our friends at OddsShark.com

Tonight, the Leafs will be the ones holding home-ice advantage in their first showdown with the Bruins. Here’s who they intend to counter with, per DailyFaceoff:

Frederik Andersen is expected to draw the start in goal.

So, before the puck drops and conjures horrible memories for everyone on the home side, let’s go through 5 important things to watch for ahead of tonight’s divisional clash.

1) Alexander Kerfoot: Second Line Centre™

Did you hear? John Tavares broke his finger during Wednesday night’s embarrassment in Washington because ours is a cruel and remorseless god whose wrath knows no bounds. As a result, the Maple Leafs will now be without their captain and 1A/1B centre for the next two weeks, at minimum. Maybe it’ll be more; maybe it’ll be less. Regardless, losing Tavares is a gut punch to the sternum, one which tears a gaping hole through the middle of Toronto’s lineup and leaves Mike Babcock with a mishmash of options left to fill it.

There is a bright side, though. While a lack of Tavares is probably the last thing this team needs, it might be what forces the highest-paid coach in hockey to play best 5v5 goal scorer in hockey for more than 19 seconds in the last two minutes of a game while down a goal.

Wouldn’t that be nice? A man can dream.

Nevertheless, when the King goes down, one of his loyal subjects must step up to take his place. Tonight, Alexander Kerfoot gets first crack at those honours.

The 25-year-old’s initial stretch as a Maple Leaf this season has gone quite well thus far. In eight games, Kerfoot sits with a decent four points, has driven play to the tune of a whopping 57.7% CF/60 at 5v5 despite only beginning 44.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and helped form a profoundly effective third line with @Trevor Moore and Ilya Mikheyev before the former was promoted. When looking for Tavares stop-gaps, Kerfoot is seemingly the first (and maybe only) natural option.

Still, this is a significant leap in responsibility. Kerfoot’s bottom-six duty to this point limited him to only 14:14 per night, a number likely to fall in the 18- to 19-minute range now thanks to his new role. Is this too much to handle? Keep in mind, Kerfoot was not a full-time centre in Colorado prior to joining the Leafs. Sure, the guy took a few faceoffs, but setting up down the middle on a nightly basis is still relatively new to him, as he will continue to learn on the fly against better opponents in the Leafs’ top-six.

No pressure!

2) Jason Spezza: Third Line Centre™

Were you among the mob of (justified) citizens fuming over @Jason Spezza‘s opening-night scratch? Well, I bring you good news! You probably won’t have to worry about his playing time for the next little bit.

Just as Kerfoot is now the new Tavares, Spezza is now the new Kerfoot. A result of the ripple effect triggered by Tavares’ absence, Spezza is expected to march himself out of press box purgatory and into the lineup ahead of tonight’s showdown with the Bruins, setting up shop between Trevor Moore and Kasperi Kapanen on a revamped third line.

On the surface, at least, the trio makes for an intriguing combination.

Moore and Kapanen are perhaps the two fastest members on the Leafs roster at the moment, each capable of decimating their bottom-six matchups by burning defenders in transition. That offensive flair could end up meshing well with the addition of Spezza, who remains a gifted playmaker even in his advanced age. But when it comes to speed, well, he no longer shares those traits.

Frankly, Spezza’s footspeed is about what you expect from a 37-year-old embarking upon his 17th season in the NHL. That might not matter too much in the sheltered confines of a fourth-line role, but in an elevated spot alongside two gifted wingers, Spezza’s lack of pop could offer another roster weakness for opponents to exploit.

Can Spezza keep up with his new waterbug linemates? Because if he can’t…

3) What Happens if These New Lines Fail?

The Leafs are a decidedly deep team. That we can all agree upon, right? I mean, Nic Petan can’t get into the lineup even when the team’s top centre lands on the shelf. Not many teams can claim that. The Leafs have extra bodies. It’s just that those bodies are all largely suited to fill in on the fourth line.

The only problem here is that Tavares doesn’t play on the fourth line. His injury is far more substantial, creating a ripple effect that is already forcing depth contributors into playing important non-depth roles. That’s some shaky ground to stand on, even to begin with.

Hey, maybe it all works out. It could. But what if it doesn’t? Do the Leafs have a suitable Plan C/D/E to turn to?

What if Kerfoot can’t tread water as a 2C? What if Father Time kidnaps Spezza? What if ANOTHER top-six forward succumbs to injury? This isn’t just pessimistic thinking for the sake of being pessimistic. These are all plausible scenarios that could actually happen. If Kerfoot or Spezza fail in their respective promotions, does Babcock then move William Nylander down the middle in order to compensate? That would probably stem the leak. Then again, splitting up the Matthews-Nylander connection might wind up creating a whole other problem in the process.

Basically, the Leafs’ lineup is a Jenga tower right now. It looks good, but it’s delicate. Removing even one block might lead to an outcome in which Frederik Gauthier is the third-line centre.

Simply; these new lines have to work. Otherwise, things could get dicey.

4) Will Frederik Andersen Show Up?

How foolish were we?

Last season, Frederik Andersen played well enough to convince us that days of Fredtober™ were gone As it turns out, one strong October from a goaltender whose track record is littered with the opposite is, in fact, not the norm; it’s the anomaly. As such, Andersen’s fourth spin in Toronto has kicked off the same way his first two did: by looking consistently miserable throughout the opening month of the season.

That grace period is over now. If there was ever an opportunity for Andersen to snap out of his pre-Halloween funk, tonight would be it. Boston is in town, the nation is watching, and the Leafs are mired in a downward spiral. Nothing cures the malaise of unfulfilled expectations quite like a show-stopping performance from your roster’s backbone.

Where Andersen goes, the Leafs follow. Six games in, a sub-.900 save percentage hasn’t taken them very far. But a stellar showing against a heated rival, and on home ice, could be just the thing to change that.

5) Over/Under on Game Seven References

Listen, live television is hard — especially when it comes to producing Hockey Night in Canada. Before a national audience, the broadcast team must come up with enough engaging content to fill a pre-game show, two intermission panels, and a post-game roundup while garnering true investment from their viewers in the process. To achieve this, narratives are relied upon to a heavy extent, which the Leafs-Bruins rivalry happens to provide in spades.

Therefore, you better believe the game seven angle will be hammered home with devastating force tonight. It warrants increased mention, of course, given just how many times (3) the Leafs have suffered the exact same type of defeat at the hands of the Bruins, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get tired by puck drop, either.

I’m putting the over/under on mentions at seven. It’s fitting, really. And if you still suffer from flashbacks, you might want to skip this one.

Puck drops at 7:00 EST.

All stats courtesy of HockeyReference.com