At the beginning of the season, deep down, I think we always knew we were destined for another Toronto Maple Leafs – Boston Bruins series. And here we are.
First thing is first: What are some key takeaways from last Spring to keep in mind?
The top thing that stands out is the power play opportunities, or lack thereof. In seven games, the Leafs went to the power play 15 times. This season, they generated 211 power plays over 82 games, the lowest number in the league. Nazem Kadri was dealt the series-changing suspension last year, but often it was the Bruins that were freely able to get away with walking the proverbial line.
Brad Marchand introduces himself to Mitch Marner pic.twitter.com/u5sNmfuuOP
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) April 19, 2018
In an interview with Steve Simmons this week, GM Kyle Dubas was asked what he’s looking for in this series:
“The things I’m looking for, is the level of competitiveness within our group. How we respond when things don’t go well? How we come out on Thursday and Saturday night in Boston and how we did last year (to start the series). Have we grown as a group and are we better prepared to open the series? We’re about to find out. It’s a great environment, playing in Boston. It’s hostile. It’s loud.”
You can’t control the refs or the Bruins, but how the Leafs respond to whatever the Bruins do to get under their skin — and they will certainly be trying to do that — will be noteworthy. Do they push back? Do they keep their composure? Do they channel it into better play? Mike Babcock touched on this as well a few days ago:
“There is going to be moments in the game where they have momentum. Don’t do anything silly. Be patient and play. That patience that you talk about — sometimes you’ve got to go through it to figure it out and understand what it is about. Take care of the puck and play well defensively and you’re going to get all the offense you ever dreamed of.”
But the whistles going away away could be a good thing for Toronto (although they took 21 penalties last year in the playoffs, nearly one more per game than the Bruins, if you can believe it). The Bruins owned the third-most productive power play in the league this season and the best home power play in the league (31.8%). A Leafs team that has a good power play (they were eighth in the league), getting fewer power play opportunities than a really strong Bruins one, particularly at home in a series where they have home ice, could swing a big game.
In game one last April, the Bruins came out and scored three power play goals at home in a relatively easy win:
Generally speaking, though, I’d expect the whistles to go away as they usually do (right or wrong), and the differences at 5v5 aren’t drastic, so who can impose their will on their opponent? The Leafs tied Tampa for the most 5v5 goals in the league with 206. The Bruins ranked 19th in 5v5 goals. Conversely, the Bruins gave up the second fewest 5v5 goals against, while the Leafs were tied for 19th in that category. That left the Leafs at +35 for 5v5 goal differential and the Bruins at +29 — similar end results, but completely different styles. For reference, courtesy the always great Sean Tierney:
It’s no secret how this series is going to go – the Bruins will try to slow things right down and make it grind-it-out, cycle hockey that limits rush offense and opportunities. The Leafs will try to open things up when they can and look for opportunities to counterattack. The wrinkle is that both teams dumped the puck in a lot and were able to generate shots in doing so. Again, via Sean Tierney:
The Leafs averaged 33.4 shots per game this season and gave up 33.1 while the Bruins took 32.7 and gave up 29.5. One team is higher event, trading chances relatively evenly, and the other is slightly lower and surrendered one of the lowest shot totals on a nightly basis.
At this point, everyone knows the styles and what each team will want to do. The ultimate question will be who can stay composed and dictate the style of play?
- I think it’s relatively pointless to look at the regular season Leafs vs. Bruins games this season. There was no Jake Muzzin, no Charlie Coyle, and no Marcus Johansson. The hockey just elevates as the season goes on in general and they haven’t played each other in months.
- If there was one really good thing to come out of the last game of the season, I think it was Kasperi Kapanen getting the monkey off his back by scoring a goal. He was riding an 11-game goalless drought and often Kapanen was visibly upset. Even when he scored, there was a pretty clear sigh of relief. In the future, he’ll obviously have to manage through that better, but in the meantime, maybe he has the monkey off his back now and can build on it.
- One quiet stat that stands out to me is that the Bruins gave up the most shorthanded goals against (tied for first). The Leafs play a lot of their checkers on the penalty kill except for one – Mitch Marner. Kapanen might be able to break free as well. There is an opportunity for a big play while on the penalty kill.
- If there is such a thing as sending a message in a meaningless, final regular season game it was Babcock having these as his overtime pairings, in this order: Tavares – Marner, Matthews – Kapanen, Kadri – Marleau, Hyman – Nylander. William Nylander then proceeded to have one of the more dreadful overtime shifts of the season, including having no idea where to go in literal man-to-man defense in his zone and then skating across the ice for a line change while the Habs had clear possession, leading to a clean 2v1. I know people like to give Babcock a hard time for his deployment and he hasn’t been perfect either, but those kinds of efforts will not get you anywhere with any coach ever. It’s pretty clear there’s friction there and it will obviously be a storyline throughout the series if it keeps up. The thing is, the Leafs really do need Nylander to contribute.
- Ron Hainsey ended the season with a 49.24 CF%, 60.19 GF% alongside Morgan Rielly, and chipped in 23 points (the same as last season). Down the stretch, he played well and didn’t appear to be as physically drained as last season. This season, he played just over a minute and a half less per game and over a minute less per game on the penalty kill. In the playoffs, he really struggled at times and truly looked fatigued. He looks fresher this year.
- Morgan Rielly led all defensemen in even strength points this year. Just an incredible season from him.
- Jake Muzzin was tied for 17th among defensemen in even-strength points. A series against the Bruins is his type of hockey. His physicality has not been as noticeable as late and while he missed the last two games of the season because he was apparently sick, I wonder if that is the full story there. The rest should serve him well and how he comes out to start the series will be very telling.
The Matchup Game
We say it every year because it is true – playoffs is about matchups. In particular, can your top players win their matchups?
The Bruins have arguably the best line in the league. It is likely the Leafs use the head-to-head matchup line as much as possible against them, which means the Tavares unit and the Rielly – Hainsey pairing. Kevin provided us with some great video here of how great the top line is through the neutral when it comes to Pastrnak and Marchand gaining the zone. This is concerning for Hainsey off the rush and we will see if the Bruins target him as Pastrnak or Marchand can have their way there.
If that line is tilting the ice against the Tavares line, the Bruins don’t have to put their top pairing on the ice as well and that means they can split their matchups. This is the chess match. Anything even close to even between the Bergeron line versus Tavares line is a clear win for the Leafs that leaves the rest of their lineup to beat the rest of the Bruins lineup.
Last year, the Plekanec line up got caved in against the Bergeron line, but they weren’t scoring and that’s how the Leafs clawed back into the series. Tavares is obviously a huge upgrade. Rielly is much better this season, as are Marner and Hyman, while Hainsey looks fresher. All eyes will be on what to do against that top line.
But the rest of the Bruins forward group is not bad by any means. David Krejci put together a 73-point season, Jake DeBrusk scored 27 goals, and Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle are really good additions.
That is not an easy defensive matchup for Matthews by any means and Babcock is clearly aware of that; it looks like he’s putting Kapanen on his wing instead of Nylander to start. With Tavares lining up against Bergeron, they are going to need Matthews to take advantage of his matchup and produce offensively. Otherwise, whatever Tavares will do will be all for not. It would not surprise me to see Babcock try to free up Matthews even more by slipping the Kadri line on against the Krejci unit to shut them down giving Matthews extra shifts against a Charlie Coyle-led line three.
Here’s Boston’s player usage chart courtesy Hockey Abstract:
The Bruins clearly try to shelter the Krug – Carlo pairing as they can struggle defensively. As noted, the more they can play with the Bergeron line (depending how the Tavares line does), the more Chara – McAvoy that Matthews will see, which is bad news for the Leafs.
Boston has a top-heavy attack – they had five guys score over 20 goals, and then the next closest was Chris Wagner with 12 (Danton Heinen scored 11 and that was it for double digit goal scorers). Their bottom six is physical, generally sheltered, and are expected to come out even while their top six by and large carries the mail (not an unusual roster construction). The Leafs’ fourth line is called upon for similar results, but the Leafs third line has the potential for much more with Kadri and now Nylander on it.
We can see this in the Leafs’ deployment – they ask the Tavares line to do everything, the Matthews line to pick up secondary lines, and they shelter the rest of their forwards a lot. The rest of the matchups are almost meaningless to discuss until we see how the Bergeron vs. Tavares matchup goes. That will dictate everything.
It’s Nazem Kadri for me. I’ve noted previously that he has had a down season and in general doesn’t look like himself – this would be his worst season for a hit highlight reel by a mile. He has often looked lost and ineffective in the third line spot – unsure of his role or how to fit into the roster and contribute. He has been played as a sheltered forward and his production has gone down. It’s not the right role for him.
Playoff hockey is the right type of hockey for Kadri, though. It is physical, in your face, and emotional. This is when Kadri is at his best. He was suspended for half the series last Spring and I am sure that bothered him to no end (who wouldn’t it bother?) and he would like to come back with a vengeance and make a difference.
We have noted the matchups above and how Boston will likely look to play it (top to top up front, slide their top defense pairing to take on Matthews, come out even with the rest). If Kadri can take time away from Tavares and even Matthews in their matchups to free them up offensively, that is a significant contribution. If Kadri can be an agitator and draw power plays, that is a significant contribution. If he can be physical and add a different element to the team, that alone is significant.
Kadri is turning 29 this year and has been in the playoffs three times. Twice he has lost to these Bruins. He gets them again after a down year and looks as if he will have Nylander on his wing – the best winger he has played with other than when Matthews was hurt and he played with Marner this season. Either he makes a difference and possibly gives Boston pause in how they want to play their matchups, or he’s ineffective and Boston can ride their top two lines without much worry.
5 Things I Think I’d Do (plus my prediction)
- I think I understand splitting up William Nylander and Auston Matthews with the goal of finding more balance while on the road. But I would be very quick to switch Nylander and Kapanen back if Nylander is really going just to give Matthews a more talented running mate to ride shotgun next to him. In terms of starting the series, though, and how Nylander has played down the stretch in general, it makes sense to me.
- When Jake Muzzin was first acquired and the Leafs had a healthy defense, they mixed and matched the pairings quite a bit based on situation, match-up, zone start, etc. Unfortunately, they just haven’t had a healthy defense to keep that up and also to see new combinations. I think would get back to that in this series. The idea of Ron Hainsey exclusively drawing the Bergeron matchup is just not right.
- On that note, in some ways, I think it makes sense that Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Jake Muzzin are all on separate pairings, but they are also the team’s three best defensemen. How that ice time breaks down at the end of each game will be fascinating to me. The bottom line is a combination of the three will need to play together at points.
- I think the Leafs will have to find a way to get Nazem Kadri extra ice time. Mix in a shift in the top six on the wing. Give him extended time on the power play if he’s not getting enough shifts while stuck on the third line. He is absolutely one of their six best forwards, so he should be played with other top players and receive proper ice time.
- I think playoff hockey is unlike anything else. If you watched night one, you got yet another reminder that it’s not even close to the regular season. It’s not even in the same ballpark. There were some Leafs players last year that did not have the playoffs they wanted. There were some players this season that did not have the regular seasons they wanted. The slate is wiped now. Let’s see what they do.
The money is on the Bruins this series and that’s probably fair, but the perception of a sizable gap between the two teams is pretty shocking to me. Boston finished with seven more points and had a better goal differential by nine goals. That’s notable and clearly a better season, to be sure, but the gap is not astronomical, and I would fully expect the Leafs to be in this series with as good a chance as anyone to win it. My prediction is the Bruins in six, but I think it’s going to be a good series.