Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the fortune of hopping around sports radio stations across the continent to talk some hockey, and in almost every single call that I’ve had, I was asked the same question:
Who is the better opponent for the Leafs to face in round one? Would you rather the Bruins or the Lightning? Neither answer is a preferable one, as both teams are goliaths this season; maybe even the worst-case and second-worst case scenarios as far as matchups go.
Then again, the Leafs are the best they’ve been in decades, and are on the goliath spectrum themselves. As I said in October, there are no guarantees that they will win a Stanley Cup, but they’re good enough this season that no particular team should scare them, that they are close enough to any opponent to be able to fairly argue for them to win a series, and that no outcome should be seen as unattainable for them.
Whatever the case, I think I like the Boston matchup a little bit more.
Right off the hop: There will be no underestimating of the Boston Bruins here, or any claims that they aren’t an excellent team. We’re talking about a team that, as a sum, have controlled the pace of lay all year, have gone on massive winning streaks, finished fourth in the NHL in points and were near the bottom of the league in both shots and goals against. Not to mention, there’s a matter of these three guys:
For my money’s worth, Boston’s first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak is the best line that has been assembled in the analytics era, and one of the best of the past generation or two. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group that has so much collective skill, speed, sandpaper, defensive awareness, and just about anything else you could ask a hockey player to deliver. You can ask them to play just about any situation in any zone, and they’d still be one of the best lines for the task in the league. The results speak for themselves: nearly 60% of the shot share at 5-on-5, over 60% of the goals, and all three of them hit the 30 goal and 60 point plateaus on a team where no other forwards got to 20 or 50.
When they’re on the ice, it’s hard for literally anyone to stop them; take a look at how the players on the Leafs’ playoff roster did when matched up against Bergeron over their season series this year:
The reason “Goals” is simply “Goals for” rather than having goals against and goals for percentage is, well, Patrice Bergeron didn’t give up a single goal against the Leafs at through his 52 or so minutes of 5-on-5 play; a little lucky, but given how a lot of these players have been caved in on the shot counter, a lot of that comes down to control too.
Stopping that trio is going to be a tall task, though there are some positive signs here; Patrick Marleau has done a solid job while being matched up against them, Nazem Kadri’s been able to send some pucks the other way, and Leo Komarov, Tomas Plekanec, and Kasperi Kapanen (under extremely limited minutes) have shown shades of being able to slow them down. One would bet that the Leafs will try to get the Kadri line out against him as much as possible with that in mind, but home ice has a lot to do with dictating that. Let’s look at Bergeron’s matchups in each game against Toronto this season.
Toronto leans in heavily on Kadri and Komarov in their first contest, while also putting the then-fresh first pair of Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey against Bergeron (and by extension, his line; it’s simply easier to crunch these numbers by using the focal player of the three, but the amount of away-from-each-other time can likely be counted in seconds for these four games). The group doesn’t come out ahead, but they find a way keep things pretty close.
When things to Boston, however, the Bruins get last change and can spread things around. With that line, the quality is so high that it becomes more about getting them the situation than it is the matchup; Bergeron takes 17 of his 29 faceoffs at home in the offensive zone (58%), compared to 15 of 39 when Boston has to change first in Toronto (38%).
For their second respective home games, things take a bit of a tuned-up turn.
In Toronto’s only loss of the season series, Boston realizes quickly that the 63-37-86 trio has the number of Auston Matthews’ line (Matthews, coincidentally, only played in this one game, missing the other three with injuries). They take Matthews, Nylander, and Hyman out of the picture, grab the bulk of their goals on the powerplay and into empty nets, and cruise to a victory.
Babcock and company are much, much more aggressive in their second go-around at home. Kadri, Komarov, and Marleau are attached to the Bergeron line like glue, and he shifts to a duo more likely to force the puck out of their zone in Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev than one that is a little more willing to wait things out in Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey. The plan works, and it doesn’t; that group gets the share of shots, but the trio gets two goals; though it’s worth noting there that in both cases, it was the Rielly-Hainsey pair on the ice with the shutdown line.
With that trend in mind, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Toronto go head-to-head with that line first and foremost at home, getting Marleau, Kadri, and Marner out against them as often as possible, using the Matthews line as more of a secondary in on-the-fly situations, and possibly even the Komarov-Plekanec-Kapanen group as a release valve to aid when the other groups are gassed. That fourth line might come in extremely handy while on the road, too, as they’re much more likely to be able to contain the group if they get stuck with them than the Martin-Moore-Brown trio that sat there earlier in the season.
(Martin, by the way, shouldn’t play unless necessary in this series. People hype up the “big bad Bruins” thing, but while Boston aren’t pushovers, they aren’t as big, imposing, physical, or belligerent as the teams from 2011 or even 2013. Let’s get that out of the way now.)
I also wouldn’t be scared to focus the team’s top defencemen: Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner for sure, Travis Dermott if you want a risk/reward of thrusting him into facing the best, and Nikita Zaitsev if you’re hoping you get something closer to the season series than the season, against that group, keeping Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak (or Connor Carrick, if he comes in) a little more focused on the other groups.
After all, once you get into the back nine, the Bruins look a lot more manageable, and that’s where they become the preferable matchup to Tampa. It’s easy to say “shut the best line in hockey down and go from there”, but a great in a different form challenge in Stamkos, Kucherov, and Miller sits further south, and their bottom nine is much more intimidating.
That DeBrusk-Krejci-Nash trio could cause some trouble; Jake DeBrusk has had an under-heralded rookie season with the club, and when looking at games between these two teams over the past two seasons, he’s been one of their most efficient scorers against Toronto. The Leafs have done a good job of containing Krejci over the same timeframe, though, and Nash, as much as I love him (and wanted him at the deadline!) is recovering from a concussion.
Their third line? Drawing good underlying numbers of late, but not a ton of points to match. Backes will likely be the one trying to throw the body around the most, which a mindful team can take advantage of, while Gionta simultaneously looks better than I expected of him this year, yet also a shell of his former self.
Lastly, I’d be shocked if the Bruins even deploy the fourth line much at even strength (they’re by far the weak link), and that’s something that benefits Toronto in the sense that the other nine will be less rested; spreading the non-matchup assignments should help them maintain the extra gear of mobility and creativity that they already have. The way that the Bruins deploy their centres seems to show an awareness of where the depth chart stands at the moment:
If Toronto can make the most of that, they should be able to neutralize the game-flow threat at 5-on-5, which would put the game in the hands of defence, finishing special teams, and goaltending.
Stacking up the two defences interesting; Boston’s is once again better at the top end (Krug can score, Chara is Chara, and McAvoy looks like a Calder finalist), but appears pretty low-key beatable on the back half (not to mention that their first pair, as dominant as they are at their best, features a 41-year old and a 20-year-old getting back in the groove from late-season injuries). I’d give them the edge overall, but I don’t think its a chasm.
If flow of play manages to even out, Toronto appears to have more players who could catch fire; seven 50 point scorers to Boston’s four, six 20 goal scorers to Boston’s three. I’d lean towards Toronto there.
The latter two points might be trickier. The Leafs have the 11th-best penalty kill in the league, but Boston sits third. Toronto has the second-best powerplay, but Boston sits second. Their combined special teams efficiency is within about a percentage point of each other. Even cutting it off to the trade deadline doesn’t give much clarity; Toronto’s powerplay is a historically stupid 41.7% since February 26th, but Boston sits second at 33.3%.
In between the pipes, we both know Frederik Andersen and Tuukka Rask to be quality goaltenders who can steal games, but neither has done much of that lately. In Rask’s last 20 appearances, he’s a below-league-average 0.905 SV% despite a 13-6-1 record. In Andersen’s last 20 appearances, he’s a.. below league average 0.908 SV% despite a 12-6-1 record.
Ultimately, the playoffs come down to luck in a lot of ways, and with these two teams being as even as a total sum as they are, that will probably be the case yet again. We can do all the research we want, but when you put Goliath vs. Goliath, your best bet to flip a bunch of coins to decide who will go hot and who will go cold.
But if you do try to look at this from the point of merit, there’s no reason why Toronto can’t find a way to win this one. Neutralizing the scariest trio in modern hockey is far from an easy task, but if this coaching staff is as good as the hype speaks, and if the shutdown group is willing to match their talent level with their commitment, it’s not out of the question that they could hold them back just enough to leave an opening for the rest of the team to wreak havoc. There’s no guarantee that they can, but no reason to assume yet that they can’t.
Even if we throw away everything discussed above, we’re talking about a rivalry that has a season series score of 7-1 Toronto over the past two years, with the one loss in a game that most agreed was a tape-burner. The direct sting of 2013 and the indirect sting of, well, the entire expansion era has everyone weary of getting their hopes up, but this team is fully capable of taking four of seven-or-fewer games under the right circumstances.
Besides, once the playoffs roll around, even goliaths have to rely on hope to get them through. May as well get started now.---
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