Since when do the Leafs do things the easy way, anyways? The truth is the Leafs made their bed on this one. All they had to do was beat Montreal at home on Saturday night to play the Habs and give everyone the series they wanted to see. They laid an egg. Boston blows a two goal lead against Washington and then lets in a late one against Ottawa to lose two games in a row and here we are.
I don’t think the Leafs have a better chance at beating Boston than they did Montreal, but I’ll say this about the series: Nobody is seriously picking the Leafs to win this one and I look forward to seeing Toronto in the underdog role. If nothing else, hopefully they make this a war.
Franson would be on pace for a pretty eye popping 53 points if this was an 82 game season, but that’s not the main reason he is an X-factor here. The Leafs will almost assuredly match Gunnarsson and Phaneuf against Boston’s top line of Marchand-Bergeron-Seguin, which leaves the Leafs default second pairing of Fraser-Franson to play against a likely line of Lucic-Krejci-Jagr. Fraser’s been a good soldier for the Leafs and will be a nice guy to have when it comes to battling in the trenches against Boston, but he’s not a true top four defenseman. Franson might not be a true top 4 either for that matter, but he has the ability to be. Fraser relies on Franson heavily to handle puck carrying duties and the Leafs are going to be relying on him get the puck up to their forwards’ sticks and safely out of the zone. If Franson struggles to do that, the Krejci line will be spending a lot of time in the Leafs zone dominating and it could be a quick series. Of course, Franson being on the first power play unit will be another huge factor as the Leafs try to win the special teams battle.
Last year Jagr had seven points in six round one playoff games against the Penguins before mustering only an assist in the Flyers round two loss to the Devils. The Leafs never played the Bruins with Jagr so that in and of itself gives the Bruins a pretty significant different look against Toronto; factor in that Jagr has 9 points in 11 games with Boston and his 35 points puts him second on the team in overall scoring, and he’s a guy whose acquisition could singlehandedly change the whole dynamic of these games and the series. The Leafs haven’t really been able to create two two-way lines, instead icing two offensive lines, one sort-of shutdown line and an energy line so if Jagr can keep up his play and give the Bruins a second scoring line to compliment the Bergeron line, the Bruins will be in business. If he can’t, Lucic and Horton haven’t exactly been world-beaters this year and the Leafs will really be able to zero in on the Bergeron unit.
- The Leafs finished with the second ranked penalty kill in the league at 87.9%, while the Bruins came in at fourth with an 87.1% success rate. Where the difference in special teams lies is the power play, where the Leafs are a respectable 14th converting 18.7% of their man advantages whereas the Bruins converted 14.8%, good enough for only 26th. If each teams’ good penalty kills negate both teams’ power plays then it favours Boston, who would be happy to try and beat the Leafs straight up on 5 on 5. If the Leafs power play can manage to come out ahead, it is going to make things a lot easier for the Leafs and force the Bruins to not play as physical while allowing Reimer to have some sort of margin for error.
- It does need to be pointed out that the Bruins have not had Jagr all season and they obviously think he can help their power play. In other words, Boston’s poor conversion percentage could end up being deceiving. Although the Bruins have had a terrible power play for years, so who knows.
- The Bruins started the season 17-4-3, and they are 11-10-3 since. If Leafs fans are looking for a silver lining, that’s probably it.
- I will note a few things, though. The second half swoon largely coincides with Bergeron’s absence, which makes sense because he’s their best forward and can challenge Chara as their best player.
- The Leafs beat Boston when they were missing Boychuk, McQuaid, Kelly and now Jagr. Although Lupul was not playing for the Leafs.
- Rask finished the year with a .929sv% and 2.00GAA in 36 games while Reimer had a .924sv% and 2.46GAA in 33 games. On paper, the Bruins might statistically have the advantage in net, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that the Leafs don’t have equal goaltending to Boston.
- You have to wonder how healthy Tyler Bozak is, whether he plays, and how effective he’ll be. The Leafs struggled at the dot against Montreal Saturday and if Bozak isn’t ready to go and Kadri plays with Kessel, he’s going to take the majority of his draws against Patrice Bergeron. That favours Boston heavily. Kadri was struggling to win draws on the power play Saturday and if that continues into this series and hinders the Leafs from setting up their power plays properly with zone time, that’s going to hurt a lot as the power play might be one of the Leafs biggest advantages of the series.
- If Bozak can’t go, the Leafs will really need Mikhail Grabovski to step up his game. He’s had a bad a year due to a number of reasons, but a good playoffs will make everyone quickly forget that. He’s always been good against Boston and has some good line mates right now, so hopefully that translates.
- I wonder how much damage Komarov can do in a playoff series. He clearly gets under the skin of the opposition, and Boston had a few Komarov-inspired scrums against Toronto. If he can find a way to make a game or even the series about him driving Boston nuts and causing them to take stupid penalties, that’s going to help the Leafs.
- The Leafs had trouble with neutral zone trapping teams that forced them to dump the puck in and chances are Boston will force the Leafs to play that game. The Leafs top 9 isn’t really adept at banging bodies and causing turnovers on the forecheck and have been neutralized many times by this type of game – New Jersey, New York games come to mind — so we’ll see if it’s more of the same or if the Leafs crank it up.
- It’s bound to be a story, so it’s worth noting: How much will Orr and McLaren factor into this series. They played every game against Boston this year and I think we’d all be shocked if neither of them played against Boston. The question is – will both play? And how much will that help and hurt the Leafs?
Will the Leafs get the better goaltending?
Last year more than anything, whatever team got the better goaltending in round one came out on top. The teams who got good goaltending and lost – Bruins, Panthers, Sens – all lost in game 7 and were up against hot goalies themselves. The last time Rask was playing in the playoffs he was part of blowing a 3-0 lead to the Flyers, meanwhile Reimer has never played a playoff game.
Will Phil Kessel rise to the occasion?
Yes, this narrative is going to be beaten to death more than it already has been, but that doesn’t mean part of it isn’t true. Simply put, the Bruins have proven they can shut down Kessel; not neutralize Kessel, but flat out shut him down. The series won’t boil down to how many points Kessel ends up with, but how many teams advance without their best player recording a single point? He’s going to have to produce at least a little bit unless Kadri and Lupul go absolutely bonkers and put up points left, right and center. Speaking of which…
How will the Leafs depth hold up against the Bruins balanced lines?
The Bruins bottom two lines will consist of guys like Kelly, Peverley, Paille, Horton, Campbell and Thornton, compared to the Leafs group of Grabovski, MacArthur, McClement, Komarov and some combination of Orr, McLaren, Hamilton, Colborne and Frattin. If the Leafs ice their six most talented guys, they won’t give up a whole lot skill wise to the Bruins – they might even be out ahead — but where the Bruins gain ground is in that they actually have players who fit the role. It’s no secret Grabovski has been miscast, and he has struggled as a result; MacArthur produces when he is in the top six and struggles to do so when he is not; Frattin has been in and out of the line-up and is cold as a result, and the list goes on and on and on. If the bottom half of the line-up can’t find a way to contribute, then the top lines are going to have carry an extremely heavy burden against a very good team and that’s a lot to ask.
Can the Leafs defense hold up?
The Leafs defense has some nice stories on it – Kostka, Fraser, even Franson — but nobody is confusing them with LA’s top six. Boston is going to get the puck in deep and cycle it consistently with all their big boys, and it will largely be up to the Leafs defense to retrieve the puck back and advance it up ice. If they can spring the Leafs forwards and consistently get the puck up to them, I’ll take my chances that the team which scored the sixth most goals in the league can get a few past Rask. Of course, the forwards will play a huge part defensively speaking, but the Leafs defense will really need to play great if the Leafs want to make this a series and possibly even win it.
Will the Leafs inexperience play any sort of factor in this series?
It’s no secret Toronto hasn’t made the playoffs in nine years, and now that they finally have it’s pretty understandable that they don’t have many guys who have playoff experience. Obviously, this team hasn’t played any playoff games together as a group. How the Leafs respond to that pressure will be something worth noting. Boston has been here before and this group has won a Cup, they have home ice advantage and there will be a lot of pressure on the Leafs’ best player because of a certain trade. Leafs fans are going to want a good series at the very least, and if the Bruins take the first two at home the storylines will only increase and the media pressure will grow exponentially. How this team handles the first real whirlwind of playoff action will be fascinating.
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