Tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs host a Boston Bruins team that has won five-of-six and sit just four points below them in the Atlantic Division standings (one game in hand for the Leafs) in what is shaping up to be their first-round playoff draw for the second year in a row.
Last time the Bruins and Leafs faced off, Zach Hyman’s late hit on Charlie McAvoy (who had just returned from a concussion) incited some animosity after the game — a 6-3 loss for the Leafs — was already decided. Matt Grzelcyk retaliated and fought Hyman, who later received a two-game suspension for his hit.
Chris Wagner took a run at Morgan Rielly later in the game that was arguably predatory as well, which prompted Ron Hainsey to drop the gloves with Wagner.
The Leafs will hope for less of the same tonight, as it likely puts the Bruins on the advantage if things turn nasty and start getting out of hand, with players like Wagner, Backes, Chara, Miller, and Carlo present in the Boston lineup. That said, the Leafs need to be ready to compete at a high level between the whistles in what should be a physical matchup against a rival that, as we all know, will look to lean on them whenever they can.
The other challenge for the Leafs tonight: Matching up against the line that’s eaten their lunch time and time again over the past few seasons. Since returning on December 22, Patrice Bergeron has resumed his statistical dominance on what is unquestionably league’s best line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Bergeron only has four points in his nine games since returning, but it’s only a matter of time before his production catches up to its usual pace on a line that very rarely gets out-chanced in any given game.
The Leafs have typically countered with the Hyman – Tavares – Marner line / Rielly – Hainsey pairing so far this season and will do so again tonight with control over the matchups at home. They’ll obviously need a big effort out of that five-man unit, the matchup will be a major storyline worth watching with an eye towards how the Leafs are going to solve this dilemma come playoff time.
Last time out in Boston, the Tavares line lost the possession battle and were outscored 2-0 at 5v5 in the matchup. In the Leafs’ win over Boston at home in November, it was close to even on possession and both lines scored, although the Bruins were without Patrice Bergeron in both games. Bergeron was in the lineup for the Leafs’ 5-1 loss in Boston in the first game of the season series (which currently sits 2-1 Bruins), and they out-possessed Tavares’ line slightly while winning the matchup 1-0 on the score sheet.
The Bruins haven’t controlled possession as well as they usually do recently, but they’ve been helped by good goaltending at 5-on-5. In their last 10, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak have combined for a .926 save percentage at 5-on-5, with Rask earning the shutout against Minnesota on Tuesday. The Leafs’ possession numbers, meanwhile, are trending in the right direction since they’ve gotten William Nylander back in the lineup — they’re third in the league in Corsi For Percentage since early December, ninth in Shots For Percentage, and fifth in Scoring Chance Percentage.
The Leafs were hoping to get Frederik Andersen back tonight, but it appears he’s run into some more bad luck and will miss tonight’s game again after not practicing due to the flu. For the fifth game in a row, Michael Hutchinson will start with Kasimir Kaskisuo backing him up.
Game Day Quotes
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on the Leafs ‘heaviness’ and their overall style of play:
How you describe heavy can change from team to team. Washington is heavy because they are physically heavy. They’ve got big bodies that get in the way and are hard to defend one on one. Toronto is heavier on the puck. They may not be as big as some of these teams, but they’re strong on the puck when they get it. Like Marner — I don’t know how much he weighs, but try getting the puck from the kid. He plays a heavy game with the puck — a strong game with the puck — and we try to be physical against him within the rules of the game, and he’s still strong on it.
I describe them as a different type of heavy when they’re going. We’ve just got to make sure that when we get the puck, we’re strong on it. That’s when we’ve had our success — when we don’t give it back as quickly. We’ve got to defend against certain things. There’s their speed, but I’d say they’re more speed than heavy, certainly.
I don’t want to categorize them. I think it’s disrespectful to say they’re less heavy than this team or that team. That’s just, to me, how they play and when they’re effective, they’re strong on the puck. That’s when they’re heavy.
Mike Babcock on whether the Bruins present a similar challenge to teams like Washington and Minnesota:
No, I don’t think so at all. I think Boston plays different than that. I think [they] play a quick game. They rely on a group of forwards to really set the tone for them. They rely on their power play a lot. They’ve got a couple guys at the back that are really mobile, but they defend good and they make it hard on you. As far as the style goes, I think the style is perfect for us, to tell you the truth.
Babcock on Michael Hutchinson’s contributions since joining the team:
I think his career has always been going. It’s just that much harder as a goaltender. There’s only two jobs, so it makes it real hard for the guys. The other thing about it is, to be a starter in the NHL, you’ve got to be a special person both physically and mentally. Even when you look at starters, it’s [up and down]. It’s hard for the guys. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit. He seems like a real good person, he battles real hard, and he’s given us an opportunity when he’s played.
Babcock on Patrice Bergeron:
He’s off the charts. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a good family man, real good person. I had him the first time at 18 or something in ’04 at the [World Juniors]. I’ve had him a bunch of times since. He can do whatever — can play right wing, he can play center, he can win faceoffs, he can penalty kill, he can play on the power play. He can adjust to whoever he’s playing with. He’s super smart. He’s the conscience of the team. No different than Jonathan Toews or anyone like that; they make the people around them better.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#18 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#12 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #28 Connor Brown
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #92 Igor Ozhiganov
#30 Michael Hutchinson
#50 Kasimir Kaskisuo
Injured: Tyler Ennis (broken ankle), Frederik Andersen (flu), Garret Sparks (concussion)
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Justin Holl
Boston Bruins Projected Lines
#63 Brad Marchand – #37 Patrice Bergeron – #88 David Pastrnak
#74 Jake Debrusk – #47 David Krejci – #42 David Backes
#43 Danton Heinen – #23 Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson – #17 Ryan Donato
#52 Sean Kuraly – #55 Noel Acciari – #14 Chris Wagner
#47 Torey Krug – #25 Brandon Carlo
#33 Zdeno Chara– #73 Charlie McAvoy
#48 Matt Grzelcyk – #86 Kevan Miller
#40 Tuukka Rask
#41 Jaroslav Halak
Injured: Urho Vaakanainen, Joakim Nordstrom