It’s official. The Leafs will face the Bruins in round one.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for the Habs on Tuesday. As much as the last four games against the Habs have been a mixed bag, the Leafs have been able to play their game and play to their strengths against Montreal. The Leafs have played the Bs much more competitively this season, but the Bruins have still been effective at negating the Leafs speed and skill up front, slowing them down and forcing them to grind for every goal. While the Bruins have backed into the playoffs, their forecheck is still top notch. For a Leafs team that struggles to diffuse a forecheck with efficient breakouts, that’s a scary prospect. The Bruins have experience, the core of a past Stanley Cup winner and play a tough playoff brand of hockey.

This will be a great test. Maybe the Leafs can play the role of pesky underdogs and exorcise their demons. It all begins next Wednesday.

Game 1 – February 2nd, 2013 (1-0 Bruins)


The Game in 10 – Game 1 vs Bruins (1-0 Bruins)

Nothing to be embarrassed about in this one for the Leafs. The Buds played Boston as close as they have in nearly two calendar years. It was also the most boring Leafs/Bruins game in a few years, but we’ll take that every time over losing in spectacular fashion.

1 – With the 4th line out, the Leafs got caught behind the play against the Bruins’ 3rd line of Kelly, Peverley and Borque. Centerman Dave Steckel was particularly behind and wasn’t in a position to support down low. Peverley makes a nice floated pass into space behind Mark Fraser, Cody Franson misses tying up Chris Borque out front, Kelly finds him with a nice cross crease pass and it winds up being the game winner 52 minutes of hockey later.

2 – The Leafs had some difficulty executing clean breakouts in the first with the Bruins’ forecheck and ability to take away time and space. However, the Leafs bend but not break defensive game stood up tonight, with help from their goaltender. The problems were at the other end.

3 – The Leafs were not pushed around tonight, and it wasn’t anything to do, at least tangibly, with Colton Orr or Frazer McLaren being on the bench. They finished their hits early and often, registering 44 hits to the Bruins’ 29. Komarov again led the team with six. Nice to see.

4 – The Leafs were finishing their checks tonight but are visibly less effective at causing disruption turnovers on the forecheck compared to Boston. The Bruins were out to play a much better defensive game after giving up seven to the Sabres and were as close to mistake free as you can get over 60 minutes. For the Leafs’ part, however, there was not enough penetration of the Bruins zone, thanks in part to too many giveaways at the Bruins’ blueline.

5 – A good shift from the Kadri line in the first leads to a called-off goal that should’ve counted for Cody Franson. Nazem Kadri grazed Tuukka Rask, but Chris Kelly appeared to make the majority of the contact with his goaltender, who did a good job selling a dive on a shot he wasn’t ready for. These things do tend to have a way of balancing themselves out, however…. see the goal called off on the Bruins at the 13 minute mark of the 2nd period.

6 – It feels like every game for Franson leaves me more undecided on the guy. We see the good and bad from shift to shift; his decision making and awareness in the offensive zone contrasts day and night with what he shows defensively. He has a knack for getting the puck through and on net from the point, and when he misses it’s usually measured in such a way that it bounces into a dangerous area or to a teammate. Around his own net, he has a blindspot for rear-side attackers.

7 – I somewhat understand Carlyle’s affinity for Kostka at even strength. He’s safe and simple, does a good job limiting attackers to the outside with good angling and stick positioning, and has a reliable first pass. His decision making and skill with the puck is not quick or good enough to be quarterbacking the first unit of the powerplay in the NHL. Pairing him up with Phaneuf, who is a trigger man – not a QB – is a recipe for disaster on the PP. Kostka’s fumble and subsequent penalty on the boards pretty much snuffed out any chance of a late tying goal.

8 – Hard to know what else to say about the powerplay, or where to even begin. By the end, Carlyle had moved Kadri onto the first PP unit and it still sputtered. There’s obviously systems issues at play here, but personnel wise, I’d suggest leaving Phaneuf and Kessel as the mainstays and playing with the rest of the pieces depending on who’s hot (was Frattin, who has been clutch, even on the ice on that late PP?). Step one is no more Kostka.

9 – You guys hear about this controversial Phil Kessel for (picks that turned out to be) Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin trade? The HNIC broadcasters mentioned something about it tonight.

9b – Have you ever seen more replay closeups on nothing plays than there were on anything Kessel did tonight?

9c – I’m just going to ignore this Kessel slump until it’s over. He’s doing the right things, it’s up to the hockey Gods to show some mercy.

10 – James Reimer has to be the brightest light in Leafland through eight games. He’s been consistently good over his five starts and was excellent tonight while stopping 33 of 34 shots. The Leafs being .500 is nothing to do with bad goaltending. While 4-4 is nothing to get excited about, that much is at least refreshing. Having a reliable goaltender in net is huge if the Leafs are going to improve going forwards.

Game 2 – March 7th, 2013 (Bruins 4-2)

Game in 10 – Game 2 vs Boston (Bruins 4-2)

More of the same in Boston. It was less embarrassing than last season’s visits to the TD Garden, and there’s a small victory in that, but the Leafs fall short nonetheless and drop to 15-10-0 with a 4-2 loss (one empty netter) to the Bruins.

1 – In a tentative start from both teams, there was not a whole lot going on early besides a bout between Fraser and McQuaid that I’d score in Fraser’s corner. It wasn’t exciting early, but it was the tight-checking start you wanted to see from the Leafs, who were on the road in a back to back scenario.

2 – After Kessel‘s stick broke leading to a powerplay opportunity, a wild stick clipped Phaneuf shortly thereafter to send the Leafs onto a 5 on 3 in the first. A good chance for the Leafs to grab the all important first goal on the road went wanting as the Leafs struggled to gain the zone. Granted, the Bruins’ PK is elite and they’re great at holding the blueline. Just one partial chance for Bozak in the slot off a Kessel feed.

3 – Bad goal to concede at the end of the 1st. Line 1’s struggles without the puck continue. Holzer gave the puck away, pinched up the board and lost the battle just outside the blueline, JvR and Bozak got caught flat footed/puck watching before Tyler Seguin barged through the scramble to grab the puck and break in on a partial breakaway. Phaneuf did enough and Scrivens made the initial save, but everyone else was behind the play allowing Bergeron to clean up the rebound and make it 1-0. Another critical error – of which there were many on that goal – was Kessel leaving his support position to fly the Leaf zone before his linemates had the puck. Just a lot going wrong on that one.

4 – The Leafs shook off the late goal and had a nice start to the 2nd, getting back to their tight checking and patient road game. After Phaneuf and Marchand roughed each other up and went to the box with offsetting roughing minors, MacArthur won the puck at the hashmarks on the ensuing 4 on 4 and broke up ice on a 2 on 1 alongside Kadri. Nice little saucer pass from MacArthur and these two are at it again. Kadri’s 11th goal and 25th point made it 1-1.

5 – The second Bruins goal came off a similarly frustrating decision from Holzer and some flat footedness from the other four. They really weren’t in terrible shape, and it’s pretty hard to believe they gave up a goal as quick as they did. Seguin slipped in unnoticed on the left side after the breakdown in the neutral zone, took a pass and beat Scrivens, who got a piece but not enough.

6 – You wonder how different this one would’ve turned out if the Leafs were to have a proper top 4 guy to play alongside Phaneuf. Carlyle wanted the Leafs to slow the Bruins down by staying aggressive and preventing them from getting set up with easy zone entries, but those were two baffling plays from Holzer, who was constantly putting himself on the wrong side of the puck out there tonight. Holzer takes the body well out front and blocks shots, and I wouldn’t mind him on the bottom pairing, but like everyone else I just don’t get it. The adherence to the right/left hand thing is just not enough to justify his presence beside Dion. The Leafs need some more puck moving ability and mobility back there. Fraser AND Holzer are too much, pick one and bring in Gardiner, please.

7 – The third line again looked great on the cycle. Good passing and quick movement off the puck, with one particularly long foray in the Bruin zone toward the end of the 2nd. They got caught the next shift, however. Gunnarsson backed off the point when a pinch might’ve been more prudent, Kadri was a step or two behind on the backcheck, a rebound later and it’s 3-1 Bruins. Game pretty much over at that point.

8 – The Grabovski line had a great third period. Their relentless puck pursuit backed the Bruins off with two or three good shifts in a row. With the Bruins collapsed on their net with five minutes to go in the third, a good pass from Gunnarsson found Grabovski on the right side, Grabovski threw it on net and McClement tipped in his third goal in his last three games to make a game of it. McClement has three goals and five points in his last 6. That’s what you have to love about a player like McClement – the versatility he brings in filling any role he’s asked to fill and filling it well.

9 – The PK was a bright spot. I also liked the push back in the third, but the Leafs looked to have nothing left in the tank in those final two minutes. Understandable given the difference in schedule between the two teams.

10 – The Leafs had the right idea for getting a result out of Boston tonight, but there were obvious problems in the execution and quantity of mistakes made. And nothing of note from the top line tonight. You do wonder if the mental challenge associated with the Bruins is almost bigger than the Bruins themselves at this point. It’s eight straight losses to the Bruins and more points for Tyler Seguin. Not fun.

Game 3 – March 23, 2013 (3-2 Leafs)

Game in 10 – Game 3 vs Bruins (3-2 Leafs)

The Leafs faced the Bruins for the third time this season. The Bs have taken the first two games along with their 8 last games against the Leafs which made this a statement game for the Buds. A celebration of Sundin’s induction into the HHOF gave it some more flair and we all hoped it wasn’t going to be a repeat of the effort shown on last February’s Sundin night. Fortunately, they got a do-over.

1) The Leafs are 17-12-3 and Mats is still bald and beautiful. Oh yeah, Leo, our hit machine, is out 7-10 days and Marlies captain Ryan Hamilton got called up and contributed.

2) 5th minute, after an innocent looking (much like a tiger) Bruin turnover in the neutral zone, Kadri finds space behind the Bs defence and S-N-I-P-E-S it past Khudobin. Orr immediately fights Thornton and gets a decisive W there, so that turns the opening momentum the Leafs’ way. Kadri keeps opening up a lot of eyes with his smart, simple plays which are all that was needed for him to thrive in the NHL.

3) The first period featured a Leafs team that was good defensively, but the Bruins started to play more aggressively and made each errant play count with a good cycle game and a ton of pressure in the offensive zone. Their forecheck really made our breakouts impossible. The Leafs were scrambling and James Reimer had to make two fantastic saves on Horton to preserve a one-goal lead towards the end of the opening period.

4) Grabo is still fabo! His goal needed a couple of whacks of the puck, but he stops up and ends up getting the puck past Khudobin’s right pad. Lucic was surprisingly soft on the boards after Hamilton opened it up for Grabo on the blueline. Good for Hamilton to register his second ever NHL point (both assists).

5) Kulemin hits the post after some sloppy plays from the Bruins in their own end. That didn’t last long and the B’s soon got back to their cycle game in the offensive zone. Reimer stood tall and looked calm in nets. The Leafs kept playing solid defense, keeping Boston to the outside. Liles paid the price when Paille (accidentally) went down skate to skate and drilled JM in the ankle. Liles had to go to the dressing room and didn’t return.

6) The 3rd period started with good offensive zone pressure by the fourth line. McLaren reaps the rewards of some hard work as he parks himself in front of Khudobin, plays it through his own legs, off his skate and through the goalie’s five hole. His 3rd goal of the season. Face punchers win again! Immediately after, though, Khudobin gets pulled, Rask steps in and the Bruins respond with Seidenberg’s goal. Franson had to be stronger on the puck behind the net on that play.

7) Grabo was really flying tonight. You’ve got to like the way he’s responding to Carlyle’s criticism. Gave a lot of energy to his line and was an offensive catalyst for the Leafs.

8) The PP couldn’t really do much against the top penalty killing unit in the league, but the penalty kill in the middle of the 3rd was big. The defensive effort after conceding the late goal also represents the difference between the Leaf teams we got used to watching in years past. Let’s make one thing clear; this team is still not good enough to consistently beat teams of Bruin quality, but it’s nice to be able to do it once in a while. Progress has been made.

9) 9 shots on goal through two periods sounds worrying, but the defense played well enough and they didn’t exactly spend all game working the boards in the defensive zone. I wouldn’t say the “scoring chance” count matches the shot count to the same degree and there were chances, much like the Kulemin post, which didn’t count as shots. The team, including Kessel with one shift in particular where he bowled over Seguin in an important chance-denying backcheck and blocked a Chara slapshot shortly thereafter, was in shooting lanes blocking shots and providing smart sticks in front of Reimer. Again, progress is visible.

10) This was a hard fought win. The Leafs battled for every inch of ice out there and got rewarded. Still, the two points probably don’t get put on the board if not for the stellar James Reimer, who looked like the Optimus Reim of old. Two bad Sundin tribute games? No way.

Game 4 – March 25th, 2013 (Bruins 3-2 in SO)

Game in 10 – Game 4 vs Bruins (Bruins 3-2 in SO)

Tyler Seguin and Patrice Bergeron scored in the shootout as the Boston Bruins clawed back to take 3 – 2 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin scored for the Leafs in regulation, who led 2 – 0 in the second period before ultimately receding to the Bruins. James Reimer made 27 saves in a losing effort, while Tuukka Rask made 23.

1. The Leafs are 17 – 12 – 4, and boy the past 120 minutes of hockey are hard to fathom. With the shoot out loss and win on Saturday, the Leafs evened the season series to 1 – 2 – 1 and sure look to be rewriting recent history. The door prize for making it through regulation time gives the Leafs 38 points, good enough to keep them in sixth place in the conference and six points clear of ninth place Carolina.

2. The Leafs didn’t register a shot until six minutes it, en route to a total of six in a disjointed first period that looked like Saturday’s 13-shot effort was the start of a trend. Both teams struggled to sustain much of an attack. Aside from Colton Orr taking a penalty behind the Bruins net with just under three minutes to play, there was little to be displeased with by the Leafs play. While they have historically had the Leafs number, the Bruins haven’t been world beaters of late

3. The best chance of the period for the Leafs came when Nazem Kadri wristed a shot from the half boards that rebounded to Nikolai Kulemin at the side of the Bruins net. It has to be said that the Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin unit is a credit to Randy Carlyle’s coaching.

What is often overlooked when discussing the line is their cerebral play, with both Lupul and Kulemin being able find open spaces to optimize Kadri’s terrific vision. They were a constant threat tonight, allowing the Leafs to stay in a game where Kessel isn’t allowed to score.

4. 28 seconds into the second period, Aaron Johnson clips Nazem Kadri, drawing a penalty. While he appeared to be favouring his leg on the play, Kadri returned for the power play. Shortly thereafter, a loose puck squirted to Jake Gardiner, two steps inside the blue line. Gardiner slipped down into the slot, freezing the Boston PKers, before feeding a wide open Joffrey Lupul, who makes no mistake for a 1 – 0 lead. The goal was not without its controversy, as the puck appeared to exit the Bruins zone by a hair earlier in the power play.

With just over 12 minutes to play in the period, Nazem Kadri recovers a blocked shot in the Leafs zone, and threads yet another INSANE pass to a cheating Kulemin, who does the NHL 13 deke to his forehand on a breakaway to make it 2 – 0 Leafs.

5. The importance of that second goal cannot be overstated, with a slumping Milan Lucic responding less than two minutes later, scoring a breakaway goal of his own. The game then transformed into a track meet, with teams trading chances 2 – 1 and 3 – 2. During that span, Jake Gardiner had me whistling Sweet Georgia Brown, duplicating the pass on Lupul’s goal to Tyler Bozak who unsurprisingly didn’t finish.

Were it not for the staunch goaltending of James Reimer (who faced 12 shots in the period), the Leafs could have very easily been down 3 – 2. With all that said, were it not for Tuukka Rask, it could have very easily been up 4 – 1.

6. Jake Gardiner showed tonight why he belongs in the NHL. After Kadri, Gardiner may have the best vision on the ice, and his mobility and puck sense have been missed. He finished with only one assist on the night, but played 20:00 of ice time, and even led a few offensive rushes.

Despite his highlight reel passes, it was his defensive play that mattered most, with Gardiner taking Brad Marchand out of the play and stopping him from connecting on a Zdeno Chara goal-mouth pass in the last minute of play in the overtime period. His 200-foot game was just incredible tonight.

7. The third period started much like the second, with Patrice Bergeron taking a hooking penalty on Lupul a mere 30 seconds into the frame, though it played out much differently. Resentment began to bubble in Boston, overflowing onto the likes of Mike Kostka and Carl Gunnarsson. Every whistle brought a side show, as the Bruins tried to flex their muscles to gain an advantage.

A lot of credit has to be given to the Leafs for being able to weather the assault, and for not retaliating regularly. The Leafs do not have the size, or the snarl, throughout the entire lineup to match up favourably against the Bruins.

But it also remains a weakness that Dave Nonis should be aware of with the trade deadline just over a week away.

8. With 9:24 left to play in the third period, Patrice Bergeron brings the Bruins back even, completing a feed from (sigh) Dougie Hamilton. Bergeron scored on a fluky backhand goal that Reimer had to want back.

It’s worth noting that the Leafs have scored first in their last 6 games, and have gone 2 – 1 – 3. While they got the point tonight, the Leafs inability to close out teams has been an Achilles heel. Particularly worrisome is that the Leafs carried leads into the third period only to surrender at least two goals in three of those six games.

9. Despite the soft serve goal in the third, James Reimer put in another solid night in net in his fifth consecutive start. Unfortunately, he, for a fourth time this season and third time in his last five starts, allowed two goals in the shootout en route to a disappointing, cough-up-the-lead loss.

While Reimer deserves some measure of blame for his woeful shoot out numbers, someone not named Tyler Bozak needs to learn how to score. He’s scored all three skills competition goals for the club, and this team can ill afford to leave so many points on the table.

10. The Leafs improved upon their performance on Saturday night, actually mustering 22 shots through regulation, but the team truly lacks the killer instinct of a contender, or the skill of a simple EMT to stop the bleeding. This was an entirely winnable game, and while no one expected the Leafs to come into this back-to-back sequence against the Bruins and take three points, they could have had a fourth and that stings.

With 15 games left in the season, the Leafs will probably need to secure about 13 – 16 points to secure a playoff spot, and will face a fragile foe tomorrow night in the Florida Panthers. Let’s hope my presence at the game will help lift the club to victory.