Two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference will face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year – the Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bruins narrowly missed finishing first in the conference, losing to the Florida Panthers last Sunday. They finished just one point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and seven ahead of the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs have known they would finish third in the division for months. They’ve been waiting to see whether Boston or Tampa Bay would be their first-round opponent.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: First-Round Matchup
Both the Maple Leafs and Bruins have top-tier offenses. The Maple Leafs finished the regular season second in scoring with 3.38 goals per game. The Bruins were sixth, with 3.27 goals per game. However, the Bruins have the edge on the defensive side. They were third in goals against, allowing 2.61 goals per game. The Maple Leafs were 12th with 2.83 goals against per game.
On special teams, The Maple Leafs were second in powerplay efficiency with a 24.89 power play percentage. The Bruins were just behind in fourth, scoring 23.64 percent of the time. Again, Boston has the edge on the defensive side of special teams. The Bruins killed 83.74 percent of their penalties, good for third overall. The Leafs were 11th with an 81.39 penalty kill percentage.
On paper, the Leafs may have a slightly better offense, but the Bruins have a significantly better defense.
Youth And Speed vs. Experience And Toughness
The Toronto Maple Leafs top three scorers are Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander. Marner and Matthews are both 20 years old and Nylander is the long-tooth of the bunch at 21. Their top two defenders, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are 23 and 27 respectively.
The Bruins have youth of their own in David Pastrnak at 21 and Charlie McAvoy at 20. Pastrnak had 80 points this season, better than all Maple Leafs players, and McAvoy had 32 points from the blue line. But the Bruins strength lies mostly in their older players. Of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, David Backes, Zdeno Chara, and Rick Nash, only Marchand is under the age of 30, and he’s 29. Those six players alone have 548 playoff games experience. The Leafs big three have a combined 18 games experience.
The Maple Leafs use their speed and creativity to create chances. They’re good at it and can score in bunches. The Bruins will be looking to smother the Leafs speed by taking advantage of a weaker group of defensemen. That means keeping the puck in the Toronto zone and physically wearing the smaller Maple Leafs down over the course of the series.
If the Maple Leafs can avoid the physical Bruins and use their speed to create space, they’ll get quality scoring chances and this series could see more goals than any other in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Bruins can find ways to frustrate and wear out the Maple Leafs early, the series may not go very deep.
The Maple Leafs bested the Bruins in the regular season three times. Matthews played in none of those games. In the one game against the Bruins that Matthews did play, Bergeron was able to make it seem like Matthews wasn’t playing. That game was a 4-1 Bruins win on February 3rd. Matthews finished the game a minus two, with only one shot on goal and three giveaways. Bergeron was a plus one, had a goal, and six shots on goal.
Outside of Frederik Andersen, the Leafs will live and die by Matthews. If Bergeron is able to shut him down, the Leafs will be very hard-pressed to win a game in Boston, where Bruce Cassidy has last say on line match-ups. He’ll be sure to put Bergeron on with Matthews as often as possible. Mike Babcock will be able to separate the two in Toronto, but that may only mean Bergeron goes up against Nazem Kadri and Marner. Bergeron is one of the best defensive forwards in the game, but he also has 734 career points and scored 30 goals this year. The Leafs will not only need to worry about not allowing Bergeron to shut down their top line, they’ll need to worry about how to shut his line down too.
Bergeron has won four Selke trophies. Matthews is a player that could win it once or twice himself before his career is over. Another example of youth vs experience, the Bergeron/Matthews matchup is a key one for this series. Will Bergeron’s experience prevail, or will Matthews show that he is ready to hold his own against the best players in the game?
Depending on which side you were on, Game 7 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoff matchup between the Bruins and Leafs was either the greatest comeback or the worst collapse. The Leafs held a 4-1 lead in the third period of that game before losing it, and the series, 5-4 in overtime. Bergeron had the game-tying goal and the overtime winner.
Only five Maple Leafs remain from that 2013 team, and one of them, Tyler Bozak, didn’t play in that fateful Game 7. There are six from the Bruins still with the team. Despite the significant turnover for both teams, this is a storyline that won’t go away until the series is over. It may be more for the fans than the players, but if the Leafs are able to win, it will exorcise some of those demons from 2013.
What isn’t often mentioned about that series is that the Leafs were making a comeback of their own. Down 3-1 in the series, the Leafs had won two straight to force a game seven. Any comeback in this series, be it in a single game or in the series itself, is going to draw parallels to the last time these two teams met in the playoffs.
Another interesting note from 2013 is in the last game of the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins had their own meltdown. Leading 2-1 with less than two minutes to play, the Chicago Blackhawks scored two goals 17 seconds apart to win their franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup.
Comebacks are common in professional sports. Some are more impressive than others, and they can fuel momentum, but it can be difficult to know how they can affect a player’s psyche. We’ll hear about the Bruins comeback more than once in this series. Unless the Leafs start to blow leads, which they have been prone to do, this storyline may turn into nothing more than Leaf fans’ desire for a little revenge.
What To Expect
This should be one of the better matchups of the first round. Both teams are among the NHL’s best offenses. There is an interesting history between the teams and player matchups. Aside from the Matthews and Bergeron matchup, there is Marchand’s professed hate for Tomas Plekanec. Expect this series to go the distance. If the Leafs find themselves with a third period lead in Game Seven, check your Leaf fan friend’s blood pressure.
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