The biggest question in Leafland as the playoffs loom is: are the Toronto Maple Leafs ready to take the next step. Are they ready to get the monkey off their back that is the Boston Bruins? The answer is yes, but it’s not going to be easy. Boston finished third overall in the NHL this year and are already playoff hardened. That doesn’t mean the Maple Leafs, who aren’t to be taken lightly themselves, can’t beat them. In fact, while many in Toronto are lamenting the fact they have to play a top team in the first round, it’s really Boston that should have the bigger gripe on that subject.
Toronto Maple Leafs Ready To Win
Last year, the Maple Leafs took the Bruins to seven games, but that’s a very flattering comment considering how that series went. Boston dominated the Leafs in the first two games and controlled much of the play throughout the entire series. The Maple Leafs were able to keep it close with sporadically excellent play by goaltender Frederik Andersen after a rough start from him. While there are many pitfalls that could end Toronto’s playoff run early, there should also be much more positivity around Leaf Nation than there appears to be.
The biggest difference between last year’s series and this year is John Tavares. He will make this series look a lot different than it did last season. It’s not just because Tavares brings a 47 goal campaign with him. That’s a career-high in case you didn’t know. Tavares will also command the attention of Boston’s top line. That line was something Auston Matthews had to deal with last year. Matthews ended up with three points in seven games as a result. This year, the Bruins will have to pick one or the other, and if they pick Tavares, there’s no guarantee they’re going to be able to keep him off the scoresheet consistently.
Tavares doesn’t have a wealth of playoff experience. He’s played in only 24 career playoff games. That’s still quite a bit more than the six Matthews had before last season. It’s enough to know what to expect, something many of these Maple Leafs learned after two rough games in Boston that put the series out of reach one year ago. A two-game bad start is the first thing that’s going to be different this year.
John Tavares And Auston Matthews
The second thing that’s going to be different is the Bruins won’t be looking at a Matthews – Tomas Plekanec combo up the middle. Plekanec averaged 14:13 minutes a game in the Boston series last year. Matthews had marginally more at 17:32. With Tavares and Matthews as the top two centers, it will open up space of one of them while the other deals with the Patrice Bergeron line. Not only is Tavares better suited to keep the Bergeron line from scoring than the young Matthews, but it’s going to allow Matthews much more time and space. Something players like him thrive on.
That’s not to say the Tavares line will be perfect, but it’s hard not to improve upon last year. Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were allowed to run all over the Maple Leafs. Tavares, with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, likely won’t let that happen this time around. The best case scenario is the Tavares line and Bergeron line cancel each other out, and Matthews takes advantage, being a difference maker in the series.
Matthews isn’t the only one out there with something to prove. William Nylander held out until December, signed a lucrative contract and then scored seven goals this season. That works out to about a million dollars a goal, looking at the cap average. Nylander’s game has improved significantly over the last few weeks, and he’s going to be motivated to prove his worth when it counts the most.
While Nylander may mentally be able to kick it into high gear starting on Thursday in Boston. The real advantage with him comes from dropping him to the third line with Nazem Kadri. That’s something Mike Babcock is apparently looking to do. Doing that keeps him further away from the Bruins top two lines and will allow him to use his speed and hands to create scoring chances. Filling out his line is Patrick Marleau who while getting older and slower was able to score four times in seven games last season.
The Bruins were able to keep Matthews and Nylander, who were on the same line, at bay in 2018. They’ve been split up now, and Tavares is on yet another line. It’s going to be much harder for the Bruins to contain Toronto’s firepower this time around.
No matter how the bulk of the team plays, this series, like most, will come down to goal-tending. Frederik Andersen was up and down last season with the majority believing he was fatigued after playing 66 regular season games. This season he played six fewer games overall. He was rested more frequently than usual in the last two weeks of the season as well in an effort to keep him fresh. There’s a four-day gap between his last regular season game and first playoff game too.
The Maple Leafs still have questions in the backup role. Garret Sparks, who played average at best this season, was replaced just a week ago by Michael Hutchinson. Hutchinson played only five games this season. If Andersen doesn’t play or doesn’t play well, Toronto will have a difficult time staying in this series. It doesn’t matter which backup is on the bench. Hutchinson will at least start the playoffs with his wife who is expected to give birth soon.
Style Of Play
Expect the Maple Leafs to stay away from the chippy, hard-hitting game the Bruins play. Last year they increased their physical game trying to match Boston’s, but it’s just not what they are suited for. They need to stick to the style of play that got them where they are now, with a little better defence perhaps.
Last season the team averaged 2.8 penalties a game. That increased to 3.6 per game in the playoffs. The Maple Leafs average hits per game saw a similar increase. That’s not to say the team won’t play more physical, all teams do in the playoffs, but they can’t match Boston in that regard. If they focus on speed and puck control rather than trying to match Boston, they’ll see better results this year.
The Maple Leafs may not win this series. But if they don’t, it will be because they were beaten by a better team. Not because they beat themselves, which isn’t something you can say about last year’s defeat.