Who will be the Maple Leafs’ biggest X-factors against Boston?

Photo credit:Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
10 days ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs are headed into a playoff series that will raise old demons for fans. The Boston Bruins have long been a thorn in the side of the Leafs come the postseason. We don’t need to revisit what happened – you should get the message by reflecting on the years 2013, 2018, and 2019.
Despite the team’s previous history with the Bruins, several factors in this series don’t match up with the matchups of 2018 and 2019. Sure, the same core is in place, but the Leafs are under a new head coach, a new general manager, and have an entirely different supporting staff in place. Things aren’t exactly going swimmingly for the Bruins, either. They’ve lost three of their last four games heading into the playoffs and have a little bit of pressure on them in their own right, with the possibility of four first-round exits in a row hanging over their heads. I know, pot meet kettle.
On top of this, the Bruins no longer have Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, or Zdeno Chara to threaten the Leafs with. None of this is to say that the Leafs are going to have it any easier, but it’s a winnable matchup and there are enough differences between this team and the one that lost in 2019 to put the demons behind them. For the Leafs’ efforts to turn “winnable” into “won”, there are a couple of players who could be X-factors in this series.
First off, I want to disclose that the Core players won’t be included in this. Everybody and their mother knows that the Leafs’ stars need to show up. If Auston Matthews is silenced, there’s a strong chance they’re packing their bags by early May. Oftentimes in the playoffs, it’s the supporting cast that winds up making the biggest difference, and there are a few players outside of the usual suspects who could play key roles in a possible Leafs series win.
The first name that comes to mind (and the obvious one, in my opinion) is Tyler Bertuzzi. Not only does he have a style of play that matches up well against the physical Bruins style, but he was a member of that same team in the second half of last season. That, and he was a menace for them in the playoffs. He led the team in goals (5), points (10), and threw 18 hits in a series that ended in shockingly poor fashion after the regular season they had.
The Bertuzzi-Matthews-Domi line has been doing damage in the final weeks of the season, and the Leafs plan to keep it that way, according to head coach Sheldon Keefe.
He scored six goals and had nine points through a nine-game span skating on that line, and with the Leafs having Mitch Marner on a separate line in the playoffs for the first time in the Keefe era, Bertuzzi will have more opportunities and likely won’t have to worry about having one specific shutdown line attacking them the way they would if Marner was on their line. He might not get consistent power play minutes with John Tavares scoring five goals in his final four games of the season and getting some confidence back, but if things dry up, he’ll almost certainly be one of the first ones called upon.
Another name that comes to mind here is Matthew Knies. It was important to keep expectations low when the 2021 second-round pick joined the Leafs’ for their final three regular season games, and then playoff run, but he fit right in and quickly became a piece that they couldn’t afford to lose. They did lose him in Game 2 against Florida, unfortunately for both he and the team, but up until then, he did a fine job proving he belonged.
Knies tallied four points in seven games as a 20-year-old, and if you go back and watch the highlights of the Leafs’ dramatic comebacks in Games 3 and 4 of the first round, Knies was on for most of the important goals.
He also kept the cycle going in the moments leading up to the Tavares Game 6 overtime winner heard around the world (or the GTA at least). He’s taken a step forward in his first full season, scoring 15 goals and tallying 35 points in 80 games and leading all forwards in hits with 169 in those games. He’s not afraid to get in the mix and plays a far more mature game than someone his age should be expected to.
Knies skated on the second line with Marner and Tavares at practice yesterday, but could play anywhere between the second and fourth line depending on how things go. He’s proven he can be effective at creating space for players like Matthews just as much as he can be in a third or fourth line checking role. He carries a unique amount of versatility for a 21-year-old, and a second round pick from three years ago, no less.
As long as the Leafs are playing playoff hockey, there won’t be a single discussion about X-factors that ceases to mention the goaltender, whoever that may be. In this case, it feels like it’s going to be Ilya Samsonov, but how much of a leash he’ll have is unknown. He’s shown an ability to steal a game and give his team reliable goaltending in spurts, but it’s hard to ignore his first half of the season as well as his 11 goals allowed in his final two games. What Samsonov does have going for him, on the other hand, is the sheer fact that he was in net for the Leafs as they snapped a 19-year first round curse.
Joseph Woll displays a sense of calmness, both mentally and physically, that serve goaltenders well in the postseason, and if Samsonov’s quick to fumble the bag early in the series, Woll will hear his name called sooner rather than later. That said, his high-ankle sprain came at a horrible time and knocked back his consistency a little bit. He hasn’t shown enough throughout the season to warrant starting Game 1, but as Keefe’s message has been to just about every player on the outside looking in, “be ready”.
If the Leafs can even get average goaltending, without any backbreakers late in games, I’ll feel a whole lot more confident about their chances at beating the Bruins. Going full Sergei Bobrovsky mode would be nice too, but it’s unfair to pin any expectation to that effect on a Leafs goaltender.
The Bruins have been exposed in recent years to be human. Once again, this will not make anything easier for the Leafs. They still have David Pastrnak, they still have Brad Marchand, and they’re a strong defensive team that remains just as well-coached under Jim Montgomery as they were under Bruce Cassidy and under Claude Julien. But the Leafs have a deep enough offence, a sturdy enough defence, and a goaltender with high potential that can match up with Boston. Whether or not they’ll be able to get all of them on the same page remains to be seen, but that’s what the excitement and adrenaline of playoff hockey is all about.

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