Maple Leafs Hot Stove’s Alec Brownscombe joined the Battle of the Atlantic on TSN1200 to preview the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins series.
On how the teams stack up:
I don’t know if people fully realize that the Leafs were a much better offensive team at 5v5 through the regular season — significantly better from a goals and expected goals standpoint this season. Boston is bottom 10 at 5v5 in those categories.
For as much as the Lightning shot the lights out this year and did some incredible things offensively, the Leafs finished with the same number of 5v5 goals. Scoring depth wise, the Leafs have seven 20+ goal scorers… and that doesn’t include William Nylander who we all know is that kind of threat but just had an off and disjointed year. That also doesn’t include Nazem Kadri, who entered the year on the back of two consecutive 30+ goal seasons. Partially because of injuries but more because of the new role and a tough shooting percentage year, he didn’t get to 20.
The Bruins have 4 20+ goal scorers, six with 40+ points. The Leafs have 7 and 8 in those categories.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind the game does change in the playoffs. That offense is more hard earned as all know. The space is less and the Leafs are not going to find as much off the rush as they do in the regular season. But they are a fantastic transition team and can attack in waves when they get you swimming upstream. Scoring depth wise, for me, the Leafs have a significant advantage entering this series.
The flip side of that is that they’re a worse team defensively at 5v5, and it goes without saying that Frederik Andersen has to be one of their best players in this series, but a lot of the difference in the standings was due to the fact that Boston had two good goaltenders and the Leafs had one, as well as the two power plays. If the whistles go away to an extent and the Leafs are as disciplined as they were in the regular season, those advantages are potentially negligible or at least significantly reduced in the playoffs.
On keys to the series:
Boston plays a shorter game and establishes a forecheck very well and tilts the ice on you. That lends itself more to what we consider traditional playoff hockey. The Leafs need to be able to engage and compete physically, and need to be able to sustain enough o-zone time and break cycles in their own zone. Certainly, they won’t be pushing Boston around, though, and that shouldn’t really be the gameplan.
So much of it from the Leafs perspective depends on their ability to diffuse that Boston forecheck, play fast on defense, and get the puck moving north into their forwards’ hands in order to bring out that skill and speed game and make Boston play the game at a pace that is uncomfortable for them.
I think a big reason why Leafs fans should have some real optimism going into the series is that we’re going to see what a d-core with all of Muzzin, Gardiner, Rielly, and Dermott looks like from the start of the series. We’ve barely seen it in the regular season due to injuries.
If the Leafs can get back on pucks quickly and get moving up and out of their own zone quickly, with D-men who can sort out the forecheck by creating time with their feet and making a good first-pass outlet, and I believe they have the puck movers back there to do it, they can sort of bring out that skill and speed more and play the game at their pace.
The worrisome part for me there is just that they still have Hainsey and Zaitsev on that right side and those two can definitely be exploited; you can draw up a gameplan to attack that side of the ice and force the puck up their side of the ice and it won’t come out of their own end as smoothly. But Hainsey’s been playing well lately to his credit, Dermott has a year more experience and is playing on the right, Rielly is playing like a Norris candidate, Muzzin can break up cycles and make a good first pass, and if Gardiner is healthy enough to do what he can do, that’s a much better group than they had last year.
Up front, there is also the Tavares factor now coming off a 47-goal season. Tavares is going head to head with Patrice Bergeron quite a bit and Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri will be having an easier go of it of matchup wise in the wake he produces by taking on the heaviest matchup. It’s a huge difference versus last year. The Leafs have two elite centermen to match up against, and I like what I see from Matthews lately as far as how he’s taking over shifts and dominating the puck and playing physical on offense — it looks like he’s ramping up and may have a better understanding of what’s required now at this time of year. They also have an elite all-situations difference maker on the wing who has shown an ability to elevate at this time of year already in his career last year versus Boston.
If Kadri can elevate for the playoffs, and I do think he’s the type of player who despite a tough year is going to be there come Game 1, the Leafs’ third line with Kadri can be an X-factor and eat up the bottom-six lines of the Bruins. The Leafs’ depth lines need to make sure they’re setting up their top matchups in the offensive zone and starting the Marchand line in the defensive zone by winning those battles more often than not.
On his series prediction:
Leafs in six. I know it sounds crazy.