Same scenario, different year. We’ve all been ready for it for months, just awaiting the specifics; it’s been a 2-3, Toronto/Boston series for months. It’s third overall and seventh overall, which has many freaking out about the playoff format (fair, as long as you were also freaking out when this would happen in the Metropolitan Division). It’s a repeat of last season, and it has people even more worried about it than the year before.
After all, last season it was a shot at a 2013 exorcism; now, though, it feels like an unclimbable wall, a deliverer of two Game 7 heartbreaks that have helped extend Toronto’s run without a series win to fifteen years.
Until now? Maybe?
I’m here to tell you it’s possible. Hell, I’m here to tell you that it probably should have been had last year. So let’s go over a few things that are sticking in my mind heading into Game 1 tonight:
Firstly, I think the gap here is somewhat overstated. Again, Toronto is the best team without home ice as far as the standings go. They sit 7th, Columbus sits 13th, Carolina 11th, and Pittsburgh 9th in the East. In the West, Colorado sits 17th, Vegas 16th, Dallas 15th, and St. Louis 12th. Toronto and Boston are a bottle of 3rd vs. 4th in goal differential, and the difference between them is only one every ten games. Toronto finished the season just one ROW (Regulation/Overtime Win) behind Boston.
Both teams were in the Top 10 in Score-Adjusted Corsi in the final 25 games of the season. Both teams had top-10 powerplays by success rate and middle-of-the-pack penalty kills. Both teams have a handful of star forwards, an okay amount of defensive talent, and a highly touted starting goaltender.
This isn’t David vs. Goliath. This is Goliath versus a slightly different form of Goliath that might be slightly worse.
A defining part of how the Leafs succeed in this series will be how they leverage their forward depth. To put it bluntly, there is a reason why the Maple Leafs scored nearly 30 more goals than the Bruins this year despite looking like they weren’t as committed to offence as they could be.
Do yourself a favour and scroll through the lineups of both teams. Absolutely, the Bruins win the battle of the top lines; their trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak is probably the best line of our generation, based on how the team controls play with them on the ice in every way. Offensively, defensively, along the boards, off the rush, those three can beat you in so many ways.
But it tapers from there. The Debrusk-Krejci duo on Line 2 remains intriguing, but Debrusk hasn’t had the year people have hoped for from him, and as for Karson Kuhlman, I’m not entirely sure whether he’s adding anything to that line or just isn’t dragging them down. The third line of Marcus Johansson, Carlie Coyle, and Danon Heinen is fine, but not a third line you’d expect out of a contender, and the fourth line of Joakim Nordstrom, Noel Acciari, and Chris Wagner is one of the league’s worst lines, period.
I’m interested in seeing who the Leafs put up against the Bergeron line. I’d presume it will be the Hyman-Tavares-Marner trio, mostly because that’s the only line that has two top-end threats on it. I do wonder if the separation of Auston Matthews and William Nylander is the right way to go about things; I haven’t liked Matthews with Kapanen for most of the year (even when they were hot) due to the lack of creativity, and if you’re going to try to divide your ability to shut down, I’d rather double stack and leave the Bruins bag-skating the Bergeron line than spread out your Line 2 and 3 to eliminate the Krejci line.
Either way, Johnsson-Matthews-Kapanen should be plenty for Krejci, the Marleau-Kadri-Nylander line a huge over-match on the Coyle line, and as much as Frederik Gauthier probably drags down the fourth line, I’m still liking Moore and Brown enough to say they’re easily enough for Boston’s line. I really wish that the lineup wasn’t designed in a way that forces Babcock and company to be picky about who faces who, but as long as they get what they want, they should be okay over an extended stretch of games.
The Toughness Myth
Something that people have talked about a lot heading into this series is the big gap in grit and toughness between the two teams. It’s the soft Leafs against the big bad Bruins, after all.
Well, at least that’s the talk in Toronto. Those who pay attention to the league at large will be quick to point out that “these Bruins are way softer than the Bruins of old” has been a subject in Boston all season. The Bruins are 15th in the league in hits and 28th in blocked shots; more imposing than the Leafs in the former, but hardly enough to be scared of a team. Most of the team’s hits come from Wagner, Acciari, David Backes, and Sean Kuraly, and the penalty minute leaders are Marchand, Matt Grzelcyk, Zdeno Chara, Wagner, and Acciari.
Just to run this down – Kuraly is injured, and Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has strongly hinted that Backes could be a scratch to start the series due to his lack of speed. Ideally, you want guys like Marchand and Chara to be in the penalty box instead of on the ice, so if they worry too much about chasing the Leafs around, that might be a good thing. This leaves you with Wagner and Acciari, who are both on the fourth line. If you’re game planning for what two grinders might do to Frederik Gauthier and Connor Brown in eight minutes of ice time, you’ve already lost the series.
Having the sandpaper edge would be great, but Toronto has plenty of players who, while they don’t instigate, they don’t back down, so given that the Bruins aren’t what outsiders think they are, I’m not too stressed about this being a tipping point.
Between The Pipes
Goaltending could be a big difference maker in this series. That’s the same for, well, literally any series; the playoffs are basically a race to see which goaltender can go on the most prolonged hot streak in the spring.
The interesting thing, though, is that the Leafs and Bruins had a bit of an anti-goalie battle last year between Frederik Andersen and Tuukka Rask, who both got shelled a couple of times over the seven game stretch, with neither exactly holding their forts in Game 7. More interesting is the fact that both are stumbling into the gate – Andersen has posted a 0.898 save percentage since the beginning of March, which is terrible, and Rask has posted a 0.881 save percentage, which was terrible even 20 years ago.
The Bruins’ fallback is that they have a backup who has done this rodeo before in Jaroslav Halak, who has arguably been their better netminder in this series. I’m generally of the belief that if you’re looking to the backup goaltender to get minutes in the playoffs, though, you’re already in big trouble – the only way you pull a healthy starter out of the net is if he’s already dug you a big enough hole. So we’ll have to see where this goes – I think if both struggle, Toronto is better suited to a barn burner, and if both go back to form, it’s anyone’s series.
The Revenge of the Elders
The Leafs absolutely need this to be an exorcism-type series for Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner. The narratives line up all too well – both have had down (still good, but down) years, both were around in 2013, and both have to bounce back from setbacks that happened in the last series – Gardiner’s career-lowlight performance in Game 7, and Kadri’s suspension in Game 1. Toronto absolutely needs Gardiner’s strengths to be put to use to beat the Bruins, and having Kadri in the lineup is key for Toronto’s ability to dictate matchups – especially without the last gasp of Tomas Plekanec as a backup plan any more.
If there was one thing that I thought truly sunk the Leafs last year – a simple thing that they were able to control that could have won them the series – it’s definitely their defensive zone breakout. To call the Leafs predictable in last year’s matchup was an understatement, and any combing through the highlights of the series shows that. The Leafs were pretty heavily into their stretch-pass method for controlled exits by the time the postseason started, and the right-side trio of Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, and Roman Polak was a gimmie to chip the puck off the glass or ice it.
As such, the Bruins made it their mission to force pressure on Toronto’s left-side defencemen while letting the right side punt the puck. Many have ignored this and suggested the key to beating Boston is tough, rigid, stay-at-home defenders, but it might be the opposite – the Leafs might have more success by simply having more offensive creativity from the blue line.
Unfortunately, while the team has improved on paper from last year by swapping out Roman Polak for Jake Muzzin, the current expected deployment doesn’t suggest that they’ve learned much. Hainsey still stands beside Morgan Rielly. Zaitsev still stands beside Muzzin; people consider this an upgrade on him playing with Gardiner, but I think there’s recency bias at play there and the numbers aren’t as far apart as people suggest they are. Really, the only gain is on Pair 3 – Dermott and Gardiner is probably closer to a 1st pair than a 3rd pair in total talent, and that affords them some ability to carry and pass the puck out with ease when the two are on.
But if they’re the third pair, how many opportunities will they get? I guess this will be something to keep a close eye on tonight and on Saturday – if they’re only on for 12-13 minutes, this could be a catastrophic waste. If the ordering of the group is a false flag and those two get used heavily, then maybe they have learned a thing or two.
Granted, I’d love to see Hainsey and/or Zaitsev swapped out for Calle Rosen and/or Justin Holl, to give three options on each side. But even I knew that was unrealistic to hope for.
The Tipping Point
While our hearts don’t forgive the past and nervously await the big bad Bruins, there isn’t a rational reason to be scared of this series. The roster matchups are mostly favourable. A systemic change was probably all that was needed to win last year, and now the team has John Tavares and Jake Muzzin to help them. The goaltending is a question mark, but so is Boston’s. They’re not as tough as they’re sold to be, and the results this year between the two teams have been close.
I can’t help wonder if this series ends up being a bit of a referendum on the staff behind the bench, though. Who they send out, why they send them out, and what they instruct them to do can make a massive difference, and did last year. It took an injury to force them to play Andreas Johnsson over Leo Komarov, it took a suspension for them to realize that Tomas Plekanec can’t be played like a 4th liner, and dozens of turnovers weren’t enough to convince them to shake up their breakout.
If the Leafs lose on the back of stubbornness this year, don’t think for a second that this series won’t force some tough decision making about, well, the decision makers. If it’s lost through unfortunate circumstance, the story will be different, but you only get so many kicks at a can like this, and while people can feel pessimistic about the boogeyman, an objective look says that this shouldn’t be Mount Everest. Hell, it might not even be the hill from Davenport to St. Clair. So I’m really interested to see how the team game plans for this.