The hungover defending Stanley Cup champs won only four games in the first month of the season, and two of them came against the Leafs. Now, the Bears have woken up out of their post-Cup win hibernation and only the Leafs stand between them and a pretty much perfect month of November. Aside from one shootout loss to Detroit, the Boston Bruins have rattled off eleven wins in the month, and the once-last placed team in the Conference now have top spot in the Northeast Division (and beyond) well within their sights. The Bruins trail the Leafs by a point and have two games in hand.
The Bruins have certainly had the Leafs’ number so far this season, beating them by a collective 13-2 score over two outings, but the Leafs look to be an improved team as well since their Oct. 20 and Nov. 5 meetings. Both of those games came in the midst of a goaltending crisis, when Gustavsson and Scrivens were struggling to put a claim on the net in Reimer’s absence. Four straight wins for a more composed looking Gustavsson has somewhat eased those concerns as we await Reimer’s return to the crease.
The powerplay has taken major strides in the last seven, producing at least a goal in each game to take the Leafs’ PP up to third in the league at 22.8%. Extending that streak to eight is a major key to the game tonight; the Bruins are the best five on five team in the league by a mile with a resounding 1.69 GF/GA ratio during even strength, and they’re also the second most penalized team in the league with 91 minutes and 46 seconds in penalty killing time this season. Taking advantage of PP opportunities will be key to relieving some of the pressure during five-on-five play.
Another reason for hope is the emergence of improved secondary scoring as of late. The Bruins have limited the Leafs to two goals in two games largely thanks to their ability to shut down the league’s most dangerous offensive duo in Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. Neither has a point against the Bruins through two meetings, and they’re a collective -6 in those outings. The return of the always but productive but rarely healthy Tim Connolly, and the callups of Joe Colborne and Joey Crabb, have both helped balance the Leafs’ attack as of late. Wilson, to his credit and perhaps to Grabovski’s dismay, will not tinker with what’s been working as Grabovski will remain on the fourth line according to the practice lines. You certainly hope that Kessel and Lupul can break through against the Chara – Seidenberg pairing, but that’s a Cup-winning shutdown pair for a reason. You get the feeling the Connolly line and the Crabb – Colborne – Frattin lines will need to come through with some secondary offense tonight. For all of what Seguin has done to the Leafs this season, good games from Colborne and Kessel would be a nice way to say “Thank You Boston.”
The Leafs, for their part, have to do a better job shutting down Seguin and Milan Lucic, in particular. Those two have combined for seven goals in the teams’ two meetings this season. Carl Gunnarsson looks to be drawing back in tonight at Aulie’s expense. As much as Cody Franson has improved his play as of late, I thought the Leafs’ success against the Bruins in the back half of the season was helped along greatly by the Aulie-Phaneuf pairing. Aulie’s presence helped deal with the Bruins’ size around the net and on the forecheck. The Leafs certainly struggled to cope with the physical toll the Bruins exacted on them in their first two meetings. Then again, they were losing the one on one battles all over the ice. The Leafs can’t match the Bruins pound for pound, but if they bring a spirited effort and use speed to their advantage, they can make inroads and draw some powerplay opportunities.