Maple Leafs get their playoff opponent in a division that doesn’t have an easy option

Photo credit:Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
12 days ago
Back to Boston. It seems that the path the Leafs take to exorcize their playoff demons would always involve facing the Bruins. And while the Panthers have provided the Leafs with the freshest playoff hockey wounds, the ones from the Bruins still feel the deepest.
There wasn’t going to be an easy first-round option for the Leafs no matter what happened. The Panthers appear to be the better, hotter team. They are the top defensive team, but the Leafs have played .500 hockey against them.
The Bruins come with question marks. They aren’t the team up the middle that benefited from a Bergeron/Krejci one-two punch. They still have a great blueline but Chara isn’t haunting every single puck carrier. The Bruins’s goaltending situation seems destined to create a lot of problems for the Leafs and we’ve already seen that throughout the season. The Leafs being swept in the four regular season meetings doesn’t bode well for this matchup.
The regular season games against the Bruins followed a couple of themes. Early in the season, while the Leafs were still figuring themselves out, Toronto and Boston went into overtime/shootout twice, and at a time when the Leafs were figuring themselves out, they still seemed like they were capable of hanging with the Bruins.
The two games in March tell a different story and both involve 4-1 losses. These two games came right at the trade deadline and don’t include the Leafs lineup as it is today. If the belief is that Joel Edmundson and Connor Dewar have something Brad Treliving specifically wanted against a team like Boston or Florida, the Leafs haven’t had a chance to show what that is.
The Bruins were still facing a team that didn’t know what they have in Pontus Holmberg. A team that didn’t figure out that Domi and Bertuzzi can excel with Auston Matthews. The Bruins faced a team that was still playing T.J. Brodie on the right side of the top pairing against David Pastrnak as much as possible. They were also facing Joseph Woll instead of the round one starter, Ilya Samsonov. There is reason to believe that the Leafs will be offering something different.
A clean slate approach is the best one for the Leafs but there is a lot that can be learned from the previous outings this season.
The first thing is that the Leafs will likely be facing Jeremy Swayman over Lunus Ullmark this series and they need to prepare specifically for him. Swayman started three of the four games against the Leafs this season and didn’t have worse than 94%. While Ullmark put up a 92.5 save percentage, it was also the only time the Leafs scored three goals against the Bruins this season. Being prepared for Swayman means preparing to crash the net. There aren’t many flaws in Swayman’s game but he hasn’t fared as well against high danger chances as his peers. Getting to this part of the ice in playoff time has been a challenge for the Leafs in previous seasons and is one that hopefully players like Tyler Bertuzzi, Matthew Knies, and Bobby McMann help Toronto address.
David Pastrnak’s best performance against Toronto this season came when John Klingberg was on the ice. That’s both expected and provides a bit of a sense of relief as that issue has been dealt with. Pastrnak also seemed dominant against the Matthews/Marner combination but saw most of his time against Tavares/Nylander. Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie were his most frequent defensive competition. The fact that the Leafs lineup has found a bit more balance should hopefully contain the Bruins’ star and given that Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit have had success against him, that seems like a good place to start for Toronto.
The good news for the Leafs is that Auston Matthews has been able to outplay the Bruins no matter who they have thrown at him. Matthews has had favourable shot metrics against the Bruins’ top four defencemen and hasn’t experienced much drop-off when facing top Boston lines compared to their bottom six. For the Leafs to be successful in the playoffs their stars will need to lead the way and Auston has three goals and four total points in the four games against the Bruins this season. Maybe not his league-wide pace, but encouraging.
In 2024 the Leafs have been the better team than Boston and Toronto’s slow start and poor head-to-head record might make this feel like the path to additional trauma at the hands of the Bruins. The reality is this series is probably a coin flip and that probably isn’t as encouraging as it is intended to be. There are only good teams left (and the Capitals) and there isn’t an easy path to the Stanley Cup, especially through the Atlantic. And if there is any consolation it is that the Bruins are probably more bummed to be drawing the Leafs in the first round than the Leafs are about facing the Bruins. And if the Leafs do get through this, they’ll still likely have the Panthers waiting for them on the other side.

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