It all begins tonight. After their third consecutive playoff berth, the Toronto Maple Leafs will start their quest for their first playoff series win since 2004 in a 2019 rematch against the Boston Bruins.
No matter how much focus goes into amplifying the history of this matchup in the last five years alone, this matchup is plenty different from the one we watched go seven games a year ago. One of the storylines that will no doubt be at the forefront as game one approaches is the respective records of both teams in the latter part of the season: Since the All-Star break in late January, the Bruins are 22-7-4 (3rd in Points%) and the Leafs are 16-11-6 (14th in Points%).
While the trend in the big picture is certainly in the Bruins’ favour, there’s also reason to believe the Leafs were playing better hockey of late based on how they ended the year. Their stretch of games through March 9th-April 6th was really solid in terms of the way they generated chances at a high rate and controlled the run of play. Comparing their expected goal differential over that stretch to what actually ended up in the net, they were under-performing by a good margin — the opposite of what was happening earlier in the year, when it seemed like everything was going in. Here’s a look at their numbers and results during that March/April stretch versus the first 67 games of the regular season.
|TOR Games 1-67||BOS Games 1-67||TOR Games 67-82||BOS Games 67-82|
Stats via naturalstattrick.com
Like Toronto, Boston produced shots and chances at a much higher rate towards the end of the regular season than they did the rest of the year. For the Bruins though, it resulted in an extremely favourable goal share of 58.5% (although not a fantastic record) while, for the Leafs, it resulted in a goal share that was around 11% worse than in games 1-67.
Boston was able to rack up big wins against Florida (7-3 win), the New York Rangers (6-3 win), and Columbus (6-2 win) down the stretch, which contributed heavily to the positive goals share. That’s not to say Boston is a wolf in sheep’s clothing (they had the better season overall, after all), but it underlines the relatively unsustainable nature of both team’s goal-scoring trends at the end of the year.
To visualize the trend, and to look at the year as a whole, this chart shows goal differential above/below expected goal differential over the season (below 0=under-performing, above 0=over-performing — 5-game rolling average):
Charts via moneypuck.com
All of this said, the regular season (particularly relatively meaningless games down the stretch for both teams) only means so much and as soon as the puck drops tonight, the slate is wiped and this series will have a whole new intensity and pressure level. Starting on day two of the NHL playoffs was hopefully a good reminder for this Leafs team what it’s like to come out in a hostile building with the adrenaline pumping; they’re going to need to show enough composure to weather an early storm tonight and settle into their game better than they did in their 5-1 opening loss to Boston a year ago.
As is usually the case when playoff time comes around, both teams will have nearly all their players available and in the lineup tonight. The Leafs rested/sat all of Travis Dermott, Jake Muzzin, Nikita Zaitsev, and Ron Hainsey against Montreal in game 82. Boston rested even more regulars, including Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Torey Krug.
The full lineups we’ll see tonight provide the potential for a high-end series and arguably the most even matchup in the entire first round. Both teams have gotten significantly deeper at forward, with the Leafs providing arguably the bigger jump in depth of talent of the two teams (Tavares, Johnsson/Kapanen full-time NHLers who are a year older, Moore and Ennis in the mix).
Some of the key matchups in this series will be much different from last year, with Bergeron’s line vs. Tavares’ line at the forefront. Tavares’ veteran presence in the lineup, and the year-long performance of his line, is without a doubt the single biggest differentiating factor compared to last Spring. To go from having an average if not inadequate option to put out against the Bruins’ top line (Kadri’s line and, when he was suspended, Plekanec’s line) to having a line that can better handle its defensive zone against Bergeron while being an elite threat themselves at the other end is a huge potential plus factor for the Leafs.
Matthews’ line will be equally important to the series, as they’ll see Bergeron for good chunks of time as well, not to mention primarily going head-to-head with another formidable combo in DeBrusk/Krejci. Matthews, at points in the last few weeks of the season, looked superhuman in the offensive zone. Translating that at playoff time — the next step he needs to take in his development as a player — will be crucial for the Leafs if they’re to find a way to win this series.
Some of the less predictable parts of how this matchup will play out stem from the Leafs’ defense core. Significant injuries to Dermott and Gardiner, along with Muzzin catching the flu late in the season, meant the Leafs haven’t played many games with their four most talented defensemen in the lineup at the same time. Without much desire on Babcock’s behalf in Rielly playing his off side with Muzzin, they’ll go into the series with the same primary matchup pair as last year in Rielly-Hainsey. The Leafs are much more capable beyond that pair than they were last year, however, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Muzzin-Zaitsev and Gardiner-Dermott take on a share of the load matchup-wise. It may not end up playing out that way, but Toronto’s defensemen are probably more suited to a defend-by-committee approach when it comes to handling Boston’s top six and their formidable number-one line in particular.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on preparing for Game 1:
It’s the best three days we’ve had in a long time, I can tell you that. All you’ve got to do is look around and watch the Stanley Cup playoffs and see there’s a lot of teams gone already and you see the excitement and pace of the game. I always like starting the second night so that everyone gets a reminder just how good it is and how much fun it is and how it is to win.
Just the idea, the preparation. The season’s over. It gets long no matter who you are. The energy of our guys, the excitement of the opportunity. The bottom line is it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun when you’re good.
Babcock on Matthews:
The thing is, when you’re a good player, you’re going to draw a lot of checking and you may go a long time without getting what you like, which is goals and assists. You’ve just got to stay patient and winning faceoffs, staying on the D side, and not getting involved in that. All it’s about is your team winning and, in the end, when you’re on a really good team, you might not even score in the first round. You’re going to score, though, as time goes on. If you put a bunch of pressure on yourself, you’re getting in your own way. It’s the same challenge for John and for all the players that score. That’s why it’s hard being a good player.
Babcock on how important Marleau could be in this series:
A huge part. The other thing about it: Not just in the room, we need him on the ice. We need him to be a factor in the series on the ice and he understands and knows that. The fountain of youth will kick in for sure. He’ll be ready to go and be a big part of things.
Babcock on the Bruins:
DeBrusk, Krejci — they’ve got good players and they’ve got a good team. They play fast, they play well, their power play’s real good. We’ve got to stay out of the box. But the biggest thing: They’re identifying players on our team that they’ve got to be aware of and we’ve done the same thing. They know everything about us. We know everything about them. There’s nothing to hide. You get to look at the guy across from you and say ‘I’ve got to beat him.’
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on how the Leafs have changed from a year ago:
They’re a year older. Besides the obvious, they’re a threat to score every time they’re on the ice. They’ve got a lot of speed, a lot of talent. One of the things I’ve noticed from last year is the growth of our players from one year to the next.
Cassidy on Connor Clifton, who played 19 games for the Bruins this year:
Competitive, he’s physical, he’s been a good defender for us. Reliable guy who hasn’t been scored on much. He moves the puck well when he’s engaged in the game and moving his feet. We’ve had to prod him a little bit to get going. I think we’re used to that with younger guys to get them up to speed when the puck drops. But we like what he brings and he’s good on the PK, which is something that’s important in this series, too.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Andreas Johnsson – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Patrick Marleau – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#42 Trevor Moore – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #28 Connor Brown
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Ron Hainsey
#51 Jake Gardiner – #23 Travis Dermott
#8 Jake Muzzin – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Scratched: Nic Petan, Tyler Ennis, Martin Marincin, Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov, Michael Hutchinson
Boston Bruins Projected Lines
#63 Brad Marchand – #37 Patrice Bergeron – #88 David Pastrnak
#74 Jake Debrusk – #46 David Krejci – #83 Karson Kuhlman
#90 Marcus Johansson – #13 Charlie Coyle – #43 Danton Heinen
#20 Joakim Nordstrom – #55 Noel Acciari – #14 Chris Wagner
#33 Zdeno Chara – #73 Charlie McAvoy
#47 Torey Krug – #25 Brandon Carlo
#48 Matt Grzelcyk – #75 Connor Clifton
#40 Tuukka Rask
#41 Jaroslav Halak
Injured: Sean Kuraly, John Moore