82 games have led to this. Scrap what happened in the regular season, because the playoffs are here, and its time to start fresh with the Boston Bruins taking on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In October, very few people outside of the Greater Boston area would have imagined that the Boston Bruins would have a chance to play for the top seed in the Eastern Conference in game 82 of the season. Heck, a lot of the so-called hockey experts had the Bruins as a fringe playoff team. Well, the boys in Black and Gold certainly showed them.
The Bruins strolled into the playoffs, taking the 2nd seed in the Atlantic Division with a 50-20-12 record, and 112 points. One more win would have secured the B’s the top spot. But unfortunately, on Sunday they ran into a Florida Panthers team with nothing to play for but pride…and that can be a powerful motivator. Just look at Frank Vatrano’s play in the last two games against Boston (2 goals, 1 assist).
The 2nd place finish means a playoff date with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished 3rd in the Atlantic with a 49-26-7 record, and 105 points. This matchup is the perfect example as to why the NHL playoff format needs to be re-done. Under the old system (division winners at the top), Boston would have been the 3 seed and Toronto would have been the 4 seed. Why should 2 of the top 4 teams have to play each other in the 1st round, and THEN faceoff against the top team? Ridiculous in theory and in practice.
Flip the Script
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The Bruins struggled with Toronto this season, going 1-2-1 against the Maple Leafs, and being outscored 12-10. Now, keep in mind, two of those games (a regulation loss and overtime loss) were a back-to-back series in November when the Bruins were playing bad, inconsistent hockey. In fact, after that home-and-home, the Bruins went 44-15-8 to end the season.
The Bruins were one of the most consistent teams in the NHL from mid-November on. Unfortunately, the injury bug that plagued the team at the beginning of the season reared its ugly head again towards the end of the year. Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Patrice Bergeron, and newcomer Rick Nash all missed time in the last quarter of the season. The first three are back in full force, and there are reports that Nash may be available for the playoffs.
Brad Marchand will need to find his game again if the Bruins want to succeed. In the last 6 games of the season, Marchand had only one assist. There were some games where Marchand was getting pretty banged up by the opposing team. Perhaps the extra 4 days off will rejuvenate him and his game.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the loss of Brandon Carlo could be a big blow to this Bruins team. In the absence of Chara and McAvoy, Carlo stepped up and played the best hockey I have seen him play. Something about the extra pressure to perform raised his game to a new level. His physical shutdown game from the prior year was back, and he became less of a defensive liability. His broken ankle means he’ll miss the playoffs for the 2nd straight season.
Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner
The Maple Leafs have a game that is hard for the Bruins, and any team for that matter, to defend against. They play a fast and aggressive style of hockey, but under coach Mike Babcock, they don’t let that fast pace create defensive lapses. They also feature such a deep bevvy of weapons, it’s hard to know who to keep an eye on.
If you try to shutdown Auston Matthews by putting the Bergeron line out against him, players like Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, and James van Riemsdyk are waiting in the wings to take advantage. Depth scoring, which is a necessity in the playoffs, is where Toronto could beat the Bruins in this series.
The thing to watch in this matchup is the special teams. This whole series may come down to who performs better on the power play and penalty kill. Toronto has a dangerous power play, going at a 25% clip for the regular season, good for 2nd in the entire NHL; but Boston was not far behind in 4th at 23.5%. However, Boston’s penalty killing was better that Toronto’s with the Bruins clocking in at 83.7% (3rd in the NHL), with the Maple Leafs at 81.4% (11th in the NHL).
This is one series that could easily go 6 or 7 games. Overall, expect a hard fought series between the two Original Six rivals, potentially high scoring given the style of hockey the teams play. I’d like to think that the veteran leadership of the Bruins will be the X-factor, allowing the Bruins to come out on top 4-2 in the series, especially if they’re back to full strength.