Boston Bruins: The Toronto Maple Leafs’ nightmare opponent

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 12: Patrice Bergeron #37 of the Boston Bruins takes a face off agains Par Lindholm #26 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 12, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 12: Patrice Bergeron #37 of the Boston Bruins takes a face off agains Par Lindholm #26 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 12, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs believe a year of growth will be the difference-maker for them in the playoffs. Unfortunately, their first round opponent, your Boston Bruins have grown as well.

If the Boston Bruins take early command of the series against the Toronto Maple Leafs once again, the bad guys in blue and white don’t stand a chance at climbing out of an 0-2 or 3-1 hole this time around like they were able to a year ago.

Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs now have John Tavares, but the Boston Bruins happen to have home ice again, and they earned it. To put it mildly, Toronto does not fare too well within the confines of TD Garden. In fact, the terms ‘torture chamber’ and ‘house of horrors’ may be a more accurate description of how the Leafs view Boston’s domain.

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John Tavares is having a great year, setting new career highs in goals (47) and points (88). That said, Toronto’s record, position in the standings and overall play in the second half shows that the team itself is not excelling as much as their big off-season addition. Tavares was supposed to put the Toronto Maple Leafs over the top, while allowing them to leapfrog the B’s and gain home ice for once. Well, that never happened.

Instead, the Boston Bruins sit tied for second in the entire league and second in the Eastern Conference, while Tavares and Toronto find themselves placed sixth in the league, and fifth in the East. Call me crazy, but maybe, just maybe, it is because the losses of both James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak have somewhat offset the addition of Tavares.

Don’t get me wrong, if I had to choose between JVR and Bozak or John Tavares, I would choose ‘pyjama boy’ ten times out of ten simply because he is that good. I would undoubtedly sacrifice both van Riemsdyk and Bozak for Tavares, but that doesn’t mean my initial point has no validity.

This season, van Riemsdyk and Bozak combined have amassed 40 goals, 46 assists, and 86 points. Their combined goal total is only 7 fewer than Tavares’, while their combined assists are actually 5 greater than his, with their overall point total being just 2 less than JT’s.

In last year’s Eastern Conference quarter-final series between Boston and Toronto, JVR and Bozak combined for 5 goals, 3 assists, and 8 points in that 7 game series in which the Bruins emerged victorious, which is greater than a point-per-game pace.

If this year’s series were to be a seven-gamer once again, and John Tavares put up 5 goals and 3 assists for 8 points, most would consider that fairly good production in a long, hard-fought series while seeing an abundance of Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, and Patrice Bergeron each shift.

The thing is, as opposed to forcing Bruce Cassidy to keep an eye on both JVR and Bozak in two separate spots, the Leafs now only force Cassidy to match up against Tavares in one spot, as opposed to managing two match-ups.

Of course, the B’s will have to keep much more of a watchful eye on Tavares than they had to on van Riemsdyk and Bozak last year, but in a way it simplifies Boston’s game plan; Cassidy now only needs to deploy one resource to cover another, and the former-Islander is a lot more difficult to forget about or miss in coverage than JVR or Bozak.

Obviously, the Leafs are a great team and will give the Boston Bruins some issues at times with their speed, scoring punch and overall offensive depth. The Bruins, however, are well-equipped to deal with them.

Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs also acquired Jake Muzzin for their somewhat barren backend, but the Bruins, too, will get a defensive boost for this year’s round-one series with top-four shutdown defenseman Brandon Carlo (God-willing) in the lineup.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs have experienced a year of growth, so have the Bruins, and then some. The Maple Leafs virtually crumbled down the stretch after injuries to Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott on defense.

The Bruins, on the other hand, once dressed a lineup that featured four, maybe five AHL’ers (depending on how you view Steven Kampfer) and stayed afloat while missing Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron earlier in the year, before virtually going undefeated while being without David Pastrnak after the deadline.

So, who actually grew more this year? To me, it looks like the Bruins are the team that proved the most. The team showed that they can continue to not only survive, but thrive while missing multiple key players. Toronto displayed the complete polar opposite.

Toronto’s depth at center was considered a significant advantage over the Bruins, and perhaps even this year’s historic Tampa Bay Lightning team in the Atlantic Division battle.

The Bruins, however, added Charlie Coyle to the middle of their third line. He not only brings skill, skating, and a two-way game to the B’s, but he brings size and strength. The young Maple Leafs have an extremely difficult time dealing with the latter. Matthews, Tavares, and Kadri up against Bergeron, Krejci, and Coyle looks pretty good to me.

Given the way Patrice Bergeron shut down Auston Matthews (1 goal, 1 assist, -4) in last year’s series, and David Krejci’s history of playoff excellence, the Bruins should feel confident in their ability to match up against the Leafs down the middle.

The D-pairing of Chara and McAvoy, and the two-way forward duo of Bergeron and Marchand will be each be assigned one of Auston Matthews and John Tavares; take your pick, but I like the Bruins’ chances. What about Morgan Reilly, you say? Two words: Torey Krug.

Toronto was able to put the Bruins on their heels and do just enough to climb out of a couple holes in last year’s series after being down 0-2 and 3-1, which you have to give them credit for. That said, there’s a reason why Boston finished second in the Atlantic and captured home ice advantage, and Toronto didn’t — growth.

The Boston Bruins have grown more this year, and not only do they have more playoff experience under their belt, but experience winning in the postseason, which Toronto lacks. The B’s have yet to lose a Game 1  in the postseason under Bruce Cassidy, beating Ottawa, Toronto, and Tampa in the first game of each series they’ve played with “Butch” as their head coach. So expect the Black and Gold to gain an early lead on Toronto yet again, and hold onto it this time.

Next. How the Bruins can beat the Leafs. dark

And if the Leafs’ are truly assuming they’ve grown more than the Bruins this season as they enter the playoffs, then they need to find another source of hope in a hurry, because Toronto has yet another date with their worst nightmare next week in Beantown.