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After a big sigh of relief following their 5-2 win over the Flyers on Wednesday night, the Maple Leafs now face their first major litmus test of the season against the Boston Bruins on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

The Leafs picked up a much-needed pair of points in Wednesday’s game, a win with minimal stress in which their stars carried the load. Led by a John Tavares hat trick, the Leafs snagged a 5-2 and allowed themselves to come up for air after the pressure was mounting over their four-game losing skid. However, they are in for their biggest challenge of the season on Saturday night when they welcome the Bruins to town.

Boston, through 11 games, sits at the top of the NHL with a 10-1-0 record after winning seven games in a row. The Bruins have scored 4.45 goals per game — also tops in the league —  with an offensive attack led by David Pastrnak’s has eight goals and 19 points. A scary thought for the rest of the Atlantic: The Bruins are tearing through opponents so far despite the absence of stud #1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy to start the year.

While they’re riding a PDO bender, the Bruins’ strong underlying metrics across the board suggest their Atlantic Division title contention is durable and will be a problem to contend with for the Leafs all season.

However, the truly bizarre decision by Bruins management this week to sign Mitchell Miller to an entry-level deal — considered ineligible by the NHL to play anyway due to a horrific bullying scandal in high school — is now threatening to create a distraction and potentially sow division within the organization. The Bruins’ player leadership group has spoken out emphatically against the move, and even the Bruins’ GM in Don Sweeney sounded uncertain about the sagacity and ethics of the signing.

Flabbergasting doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Getting back to tonight’s game, the Leafs, despite the big win on Wednesday, will once again make changes at the bottom of the lineup. They have also subtracted one NHL option for their bottom six with the loss of Nicolas Aubé-Kubel to a waiver claim by Washington on Saturday.

Sheldon Keefe continues to tinker with his bottom-six lines in search of the right combinations. After playing on the wing last game, Calle Järnkrok is sliding back over to play center on the third line. Pontus Holmberg, meanwhile, has been taken out of the lineup altogether. In his place, Wayne Simmonds returns to the lineup to play alongside Jarnkrok and Pierre Engvall. 

On the backend, Victor Mete has been swapped out for Timothy Liljegren, who will make his season debut on a pairing with Morgan Rielly after missing the first month of the season with a hernia. Missing camp and the first month of the season means patience will be required, but in addition to his experience last season playing next to Rielly and taking competent reps against decent competition last season, he gives the Leafs a little more offensive acumen (23 points in 61 games) on the blue line and an additional right-handed option and penalty killer.

In goal, Ilya Samsonov will make his eighth start of the season (5-2-0). While he has been in net for all five Leaf wins this season, he has not won a game where he allowed more than two goals as the run support offensively has not been as consistent as expected from last year’s second-ranked offense. The Bruins, meanwhile, have scored at least three goals in 10 of 11 games.

In net for the Bruins, it appears as though Linus Ullmark — undefeated through eight games with a .929 save percentage — will take the start.


Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the threat posed by the Bruins’ offense:

They have had some people out and still have some people out that are important to them, but if you look at Pastrnak and the way he is playing — the pace and confidence he is playing with — he is driving a lot of things for them. They are getting contributions from all lines and producing at a really high level at five on five.

That is really fuelling a lot of their wins backed by the fact that they have given up virtually nothing on the penalty kill. They are not getting scored on a whole lot. They are scoring at a high rate themselves. It is leading them to a lot of wins.

Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery on the return of David Krejci:

We are deep up the middle. If you are deep up the middle, you usually have a good team. Right now, we are getting the results.

Montgomery on management’s decision to sign Mitchell Miller to an ELC:

It’s tough to say because I don’t know the man. All I know is that he did a reprehensible act. Moving forward, he is going to have to show everybody every day that he is doing the right thig. That is what he has to do: the next right thing.

Montgomery on whether it could have an impact on the culture and momentum around the team:

I hadn’t thought about it, so no.

Patrice Bergeron on new head coach Jim Montgomery’s early impact on the team:

It has been great. He obviously brought a different energy, a different voice, and a tweak here and there in the system. Not too many changes, but he wants us to be very aggressive. He wants the defense to be really aggressive. He wants the defense to join the rush. I think we have seen the results of it.

Bergeron on management’s decision to sign Miller:

I was asked by Don about a week or so ago for my opinion. I think I had my concerns. I shared my opinion. In a way, I think I was not necessarily agreeing with it. To be honest with you, I think the culture that we built here goes against that type of behaviour. I think we are a team that has built character and character people.

What he did is unacceptable. We don’t stand by that. I know, for myself anyway, in this locker room we are all about inclusion, diversity, and respect. Those are core values that we have. We expect guys to wear this jersey to be high-character people that act with integrity and respect.

My understanding is that he is going to put in the work in the development programs and community programs to better himself. It is up to him to do that. That is it.

From my standpoint, it is a hockey operations decision. We can control what we can control. Hopefully, there is some growth and change. If it was the same 14-year-old walking into this locker room, it wouldn’t be accepted, wanted, or welcome in this locker room. That is my stance on it.

Nick Foligno on management’s decision to sign Miller:

It’s tough. It’s a hard topic. First and foremost, the organization is not going to do something that will jeopardize that, but at the same time, it’s not something anyone in this dressing room stands for. The culture that we have built — and these guys have built before I got here — is one of inclusion. It goes against that.

I understand he was 14 when he made the mistakes, but it is hard for us to swallow. We take a lot of pride in here with the way we act, carry ourselves, and what it is to be a Bruin. It was a tough thing for our group to hear.

I am not going to lie to you. I don’t think any guy was too happy. This is a group that cares a lot about how we carry ourselves and how we treat people. That was, especially for the guys who have been here, a tough pill to swallow.

In the same light, I don’t think the organization is ever not looking out for the best interest of us. I think we had a lot of concerns. This kid will have to answer for those and prove to everybody — especially if he wants to get in this room — that he is a changed man. We hope he works towards that.

In this room, we are worried about the group in here and what we are doing. It is a special thing we have going on here.


Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #47 Pierre Engvall  – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #62 Denis Malgin

Defensemen
#78 TJ Brodie – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #38 Rasmus Sandin

Goaltenders
Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#50 Erik Källgren

Extras: Nick Robertson, Pontus Holmberg, Filip Král, Victor Mete
Injured
: Kyle Clifford, Jake Muzzin, Matt Murray, Jordie Benn


Boston Bruins Projected Lines

Forwards
#63 Brad Marchand – #37 Patrice Bergeron – #74 Jake DeBrusk
#71 Taylor Hall – #46 David Krejci – #88 David Pastrnak
#18 Pavel Zacha  – #13 Charlie Coyle – #11 Trent Frederic
#17 Nick Foligno – #92 Tomas Nosek – #10 A.J. Greer

Defensemen
#27 Hampus Lindholm – #75 Connor Clifton
#48 Matt Grzelcyk – #25 Brandon Carlo
#6 Mike Reilly – #86 Anton Stralman

Goaltenders
Starter: #35 Linus Ullmark
#30 Keith Kinkaid

Injured: Charlie McAvoy, Craig Smith, Jeremy Swayman