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We’re at the half way point and the Leafs are in great shape at 15-9-0, sitting in fifth in the East with 30 points. .500 hockey from here on in, while not the best way to enter the playoffs, gets the Leafs back to the post-season.
The Leafs recent form, on paper, has also been dandy, with three wins on the trot. On one hand you’re happy with those final results, with the team finding different ways to win whether coming from behind or holding on for dear life, on the other you’re concerned with the significant portions of game in which the Leafs have been outplayed, outpossessed and outchanced.
The way the team performed in the pair of 5-4 wins over the Islanders and Senators wins won’t translate well into the run of strong opponents upcoming. It’s tough to imagine the Leafs will pull out a point with anything less than a consistent effort across three periods tonight against Boston. The Leafs for much of the third couldn’t cope with the Senators forecheck, with the defense struggling once attackers chipped the puck in behind them and worked it down low (Holzer, Gunnarsson in particular). By doing so the Senators were able to break the Leafs down repeatedly starting in the second and throughout the third. The Boston Bruins are an elite team at generating offense off the cycle and have chewed up teams less vulnerable than the Leafs with this line of attack.
What’s the key, then? More offensive zone time throughout, efficient puck clearances, and better execution of clean, well-supported break outs despite ample pressure from a Bruins team that takes away time and space with their forecheck as well as any team in the league. Winning a fair percentage of board battles at both ends of the rink is a necessity against a Bruins team that tends to dominate the walls. Easy enough, right? The Leafs still aren’t the biggest up front but have to approach it by doing what they do best, using their speed and keeping their legs moving on and off the puck. The challenge is only augmented with the Leafs needing their best effort in recent games to come while playing as the tired team in a back to back set. The Bruins meanwhile have played an NHL-low 20 games to date.
Hopefully, with both the Kessel and Kadri lines rolling coming into TD Garden, the matchup challenge isn’t as simple for the Bruins as it was last season.
Lineup notes for tonight – It looks like relative unknown Anton Khudobin will start for the Bruins in net in just his tenth start of his career. The 26-year-old Khudobin is a former Minnesota Wild 7th round pick out of Russia who has spent most of his career with the Houston Aeros and Providence Bruins. He has a short but excellent track record in the NHL net – 8-2 with a 1.83 GAA and a .940 save percentage – and is 3-1-0 this season. Khudobin is a smaller goaltender known for his athleticism, quickness and ability to scramble. Let’s hope we get a break and the backup plays like a backup tonight.
As for the Leafs, Matt Frattin sounds like a no-go still according to Henny, while I’d guess Carlyle will stick with the hot hand in net with Reimer, leaving the lineup unchanged.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien had some positive things to say about the this Leafs team in his media address today.
“Defensively, they’ve really tightened up their game. Offensively, they’re still a skilled team but they’re also doing the grunt work. They come at you hard and I’m one of those guys who believes they’re a legit contender, no doubt about it they play like one. Having said that, I’ve already told our guys, ‘if you aren’t ready for a tough game tonight you’re making a big mistake.'”
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