The media narrative for the Maple Leafs vs. Bruins round one series is going to revolve around whether the Leafs can redeem the infamous loss of 2013 – I’ve already seen a TSN segment on it – but the series is going to be decided by the matchups.
Asked about the series, Head Coach Mike Babcock quickly pointed out, “I think they’ve got more points than us, so we’re the underdog.” He went on, “In saying all of that, they believe they’re going to win and we believe we’re going to win. That doesn’t mean we think it’s going to be easy. We don’t think that at all. But we think we’ve got enough in the room that we’re going to find a way.”
Comparing the teams’ numbers, they are relatively even. The Leafs special teams add up to 106.4 percent, while the Bruins are at a tidy 107. Both teams are at the high end offensively (the Leafs were 4th in goals per game, the Bruins were 6th), but where they differ is on the defensive side of the game. Boston finished first in shots against and Toronto was 28th, and it was reflected in goals against, too (12th vs. 3rd). Boston was the third-best 5v5 Corsi team with 53.6 percent, while the Leafs were 17th at 49.8 percent.
Both teams are really good, but if you look at the comparison of team results throughout the season, the Bruins are slightly ahead on paper.
And yet Toronto won the season series, going 3-1 (with an overtime win). It’s unclear how much can really be gleaned from that. All of the games were before the trade deadline; since then, Boston added Rick Nash, Brian Gionta and Ryan Donato, giving them much needed depth — an issue for them against Toronto. That would also mean Tomas Plekanec was not yet a Leaf. Also, Auston Matthews did not play in three of those four games.
All of this is to say the composition of both teams will be quite different heading into the playoffs compared to anything we have seen so far in the regular season – and it has been a month and a half since they last played each other, anyway.
In the one game Matthews did play in the season series (and Marchand did not play), the Leafs lost. In that game, the Bruins matched up Patrice Bergeron against Matthews and he dominated – In 7:55 of 5v5 ice time against each other, the shot attempts were 9 – 2 for Bergeron.
In the other three games, the Bergeron matchup went to Nazem Kadri. Kadri won one game (17 vs. 13), was almost even in another (8 vs. 11), and was completely dominated in the third (5 vs. 22). Even with the mixed results, that will be the matchup the Leafs chase. On the flip side, Boston will surely be chasing the Bergeron vs. Matthews matchup, and that’s where home ice could prove to be a big deal.
For the Bruins, that would leave the Riley Nash line (who the Bruins would prefer to surround with Danton Heinen and David Backes) to go up against the Kadri unit. David Krejci received 65% non-neutral offensive zone starts this season, which was the highest of his career. They shelter his line much like the Leafs do with the Bozak unit. This is why the fourth lines and depth will matter – because the Plekanec line will take those draws against Krejci most likely, while the Bozak line will go up against the Noel Acciari-led fourth line.
Also of note for Boston: A healthy Rick Nash on the Krejci line will give them more responsibility. They might split that matchup between the Kadri line and the Riley Nash unit, depending on faceoff situations. In their last game, the Leafs caught the Krejci line out with the Nylander-centered Marner line, and it was an easy goal. On that night, Marner out attempted Chara 16 – 5 at even strength.
With home-ice advantage, Boston will be the first team to kind of “dictate” the matchups. While we’ve looked at the forwards, many will suggest that the Kadri line with Marleau and Marner might be able to turn the tide going against the Riley Nash unit (Nash is quite underrated, by the way). The Bruins might counter that by splitting out their defense pairings.
In the one game Matthews played, the Bruins actually played Torey Krug and Kevan Miller against that line, which leaves the Zdeno Charo – Charlie McAvoy pairing to go up against the Kadri unit, potentially. However, they will double up that pairing with defensive zone starts, as the Bruins rather quietly shelter the Adam McQuaid pairing with over 60 percent non-neutral zone offensive zone starts this season.
This is why the Bozak line could be a real x-factor. The Bruins will likely be rather comfortable with the top two line matches; even if the Kadri line lights it up at 5v5, they can at least move around their defensemen and spread out their matchups. But if that Bozak line gets hot at 5v5 (and, really, Bozak and JVR do most of their damage on the PP), that will have the Bruins asking themselves serious questions.
When discussing the Bruins and the top line, Babcock made a noteworthy point that seems rather obvious – “Their good players are good.” It sounds simple enough, but the top head-to-head matchups set the table for the lower lines, and that’s how you tilt the ice in your direction over the course of a game. Here’s an example:
Look at how the Bergeron line turns a defensive-zone faceoff against Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and co. into an offensive shift. They rarely dump the puck in off the attack because they are so skilled. They can gain the zone with speed to the outside, or have a little stop up play and cross-ice pass. Again, they are on with the Krug pairing, not the Chara pairing – this will be something to watch for sure, too.
At the end of the sequence, they force an icing, and who comes out? The Krejci line. Those top lines matching up will dictate who wins that offensive-zone battle with the Krejci and Bozak lines, and those are lines each team needs to shelter defensively, without question.
The Bruins’ strong possession numbers are, of course, led by their top line, but as a team, they love to cycle and work the walls. One area where the Leafs might be able to combat this and tilt the ice in their favour is through the mobility of their defense.
The Bruins have Krug, and while McAvoy is skilled, he’s not necessarily a player that will carry it up the ice. For Toronto, the way they have constructed their defensive pairings, they have a puck rusher on each pairing now between Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Travis Dermott. This could help beat the Bruins forecheck.
Here is Rielly against the Bruins:
The Bruins are heavier, but the Leafs are faster. While Boston will try to slow the game down and cycle, the Leafs will try to use their speed and offensive firepower.
The Leafs scored at least one power play goal in every game against the Bruins this season, going 5/14 through four games. Boston was a middle-of-the pack team when it came to taking penalties this season; they were 17th in minor penalties on the year, while the Leafs were 28th. If the whistles go away, that’s a Bruins advantage.
On the power play, I noted last week that the Sabres were definitely paying more attention to Marner on the half-wall in those three Toronto vs. Buffalo games that came in a short window, so we’ll see how the Bruins adjust. Marner terrorized Boston from his spot on the power play along the half-wall. Plays like this looked easy:
What makes the Leafs’ success at least a little bit surprising is the Bruins have the third best penalty kill in the league. This element alone – whether the Leafs can draw power plays and then score on them — might decide the series. For Toronto, it will be more of the same until the Bruins adjust – work it to Marner, and use the many half-wall plays at their disposal from there.
The Bruins power play is no slouch, either, finishing fourth at 23.5 percent. David Pastrnak was tied for 10th in the league with 13 power play goals, while Patrice Bergeron was not far behind with 10. The Leafs managed to shut the Bruins PP out twice. When Boston scored twice on it in early February, Andersen let in a weak one.
Boston has multiple one-timers to set up between Pastrnak and Krug, and Bergeron is as good of a high-slot player as there is in the league. Look at how they set up multiple one-timer options while Marchand disrupts in front:
Where the Leafs might be able to really disrupt them is on the breakout/entry – this is where the Leafs PK really thrives, as they are excellent in the neutral zone. Teams can’t score if they can’t set up. Here is an example against the Bruins where the Leafs PK repeatedly shut them down:
Players To Watch
Kasperi Kapanen – Connor Brown quietly only tallied 28 points this season, and the Leafs will be counting on the Bozak line to score at 5v5, not just on the PP. They might be shifting Kapanen up the lineup at times for his speed and to shake things up. He already has a few playoff goals under his belt and a big goal against Pittsburgh last season to qualify. Against a slower Bruins team, he could really stand out for the speed he brings to the game. He will also get time on the penalty kill, which will make his role important, no matter what. Down the stretch, the fourth line has made a continual impact in limited minutes.
Leo Komarov – Maybe not for the reason you are thinking, though. He’s going to play a big role on the penalty kill and in defensive minutes in general. The questions will be, how much does he play, and where is he deployed? Babcock has been fond of putting Komarov with Marleau and Kadri for this matchup, and I think we’ll see it again in this series, but how often?
Kevan Miller – With Brandon Carlo out, Miller is going to slide into the top four spot alongside Krug primarily and see big minutes against the Leafs’ top two lines. He’s having a steady season and does have some mobility to his game to go along with being 6’2. How he handles the minutes will be a really important for the Bruins to have any chance.
Danton Heinen – Nobody is really talking about this guy across the league, but he just finished up a 47-point rookie season. Heinen has size (6’1), skill, and the Bruins are going to rely on him to help their power play and provide offensive depth in order to compete with the Leafs’ deep complement of forwards. You know Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak and Krejci will be good, but the Bruins will need depth scoring to beat the Leafs.
Leafs in 7. Yep. I just think they are deeper, a little more skilled, and speed kills. It’s very close, though.