A year ago the Toronto Maple Leafs took a big step in their rebuild by returning to the playoffs for just the second time in the salary cap era (and the first time in a full 82-game season in the salary cap era) and held their own against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals. It did not result in a series win, but it was a good stepping stone year and an important box to check off in the organization’s return to relevance as a contending team.
They came back this season and improved their record by 10 points, set a franchise record with wins, and qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons.
Now it is time to try and take the next step and check off the next box: Do something with that playoff appearance.
The Maple Leafs haven’t played in the NHL’s second round since the 2003-04 season (and while we’re on the subject, a Mike Babcock coached team has played in the second-round just once in the past seven years — and that was six years ago) so there has to be some pressure to be more than just a team that is good enough to get into the playoffs.
They have the high-end talent at the top of their roster, the scoring depth to complement them, and the goaltending to do just that.
Standing in their way this time: The Boston Bruins, a team that has been demolishing the rest of the NHL for most of the past five months and a familiar playoff foe for the Maple Leafs. You will no doubt remember that 2012-13 series that saw Toronto completely implode in Game 7 when the game seemed to be completely in their control — only five players remain from that Toronto team, but it is a great chance for redemption from a fans perspective.
[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]
This Bruins team can score, it can defend, it has a great power play and a penalty kill that can shut yours down. It has Stanley Cup winning experience and it has talented, fast, skillful youth. It is a team that really does not have a glaring weakness.
Given that both teams finished the regular season among the top-eight in the entire NHL, played a pretty tight season series, and are fairly evenly matched on paper it has the potential to be a heck of a series.
Let us see how the two teams stack up.
Boston: Brad Marchand has become one of the best all-around forwards in the NHL and is a big part of what has been one of the league’s best lines this season alongside Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. When that trio was on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins controlled an almost unbelievable 59 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 28-16 margin. Bergeron gets a lot of credit for being the driving force behind that success but when Pastrnak and Marchand were together without him the Bruins were still 54 percent on the shot attempts and outscored teams by an 18-9 margin. They are all just great players. If Rick Nash is healthy and ready to go for the playoffs this group of forwards gets that much better. David Krejci can still produce in a secondary role and the Bruins suddenly have an influx of young talent in Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Jake DeBrusk all producing.
Toronto: They finished the regular season as the NHL’s third-highest scoring team and did not have their best player — Auston Matthews — for 20 games. When he was in the lineup Matthews was a beast, scoring 34 goals in 62 games, putting him on a pace that would have exceeded his 40-goal output from his rookie season. It is an embarrassment of riches up and down the lineup when it comes to young talent and they still have a couple of 30-goal veterans in James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, plus a 27-goal season from Patrick Marleau.
Advantage: Toronto, but it’s close. These are two of the best offensive teams in the league and both have really deep rosters that can get production from all over. Toronto has eight forwards this year that topped the 40-point mark and nine that scored at least 10 goals. That is a deep group of forwards.
Boston: A couple of years ago the Bruins defense got old, slow, and struggled to replace a lot of the talent that had moved on. That has since changed, and while the defense may not be quite what it was in 2011 or 2012 when Zdeno Chara was closer to his prime, it is still very good. Chara is still playing 23 minutes per night and rookie Charlie McAvoy has stepped into the lineup and become an immediate impact player. Torey Krug had a huge year offensively
Toronto: Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly both had big years offensively with each of them topping the 50-point mark, the only set of teammate defenders in the NHL to accomplish that this season. The problem for the Maple Leafs defensively is that they give up a lot in the defensive zone. At 33.9 shots on goal against per game the Maple Leafs were the fourth-worst shot suppression team in the league this season and by far the worst among the playoff teams. Kind of a concern.
Advantage: Boston. With Gardiner and Reilly the Maple Leafs obviously have some talent on their blue line, but when it comes to all-around defensive play Boston is simply the better team and pretty much every piece of objective evidence you can look at illustrates that.
Boston: Tuukka Rask had an absolutely miserable start to the season, losing 10 of his first 13 starts with a .896 save percentage to go along with that horrendous record. It was not great! Since then the Bruins have been almost unbeatable with Rask in the lineup, going 31-6-3 in his 40 decisions since then. He also has a .923 save percentage in those starts.
Toronto: Frederik Andersen might be the most important player for the Maple Leafs. Not the best player, but the most important. Given how many shots and chances they give up it is imperative for them to get quality goaltending, and Andersen has provided that almost all season. It’s largely because of him that a team that gives up the fourth-most shots in the league was only 11th in goals against. The Maple Leafs gave him a huge workload this season, not only by starting him in 66 games (second most in the league) but by also making him face the most shots on goal. The 2,211 shots he faced were nearly 200 more than the next closest goalie.
Advantage: Toronto. Rask can be great and has the superior record but a lot of that comes from playing behind a better team. Just looking at it from the perspective of how much the Maple Leafs have had to rely on Andersen this season and how well he has stood up to that makes me want to give him a slight edge.
Boston: Part of what makes the Bruins such a scary team is they not only dominate during 5-on-5 play, but they have incredible special teams, entering the playoffs with the league’s fourth-best player (23.5 percent) and third-best penalty kill (83.7 percent). They are the only team in the league to be in the top-five in both categories.
Toronto: Like the Bruins the Maple Leafs have been great on special teams this season and boast the league’s second-best power play and an above average penalty kill. The player that really makes the Maple Leafs’ power play click and probably does not get enough attention for it: Mitch Marner.
Advantage: Boston. Both teams are pretty similar in the sense that they are top-10 in both categories, but the Bruins get an edge for having the slightly better penalty kill. They will get a challenge in this series, though.
Boston: The Bruins are a team that has two separate cores of players. At the top of the lineup they have the veterans that have been through the Stanley Cup run multiple times with Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, and Chara. Then they have this younger wave of players led by Pastrnak, Heinen, DeBrusk, McAvoy and the latest addition to the group, Ryan Donato. Donato joined the Bruins just after the Winter Olympics and made an immediate impact down the stretch run and gives an already loaded roster just one more scoring threat for other teams to deal with.
Toronto: With so much focus on the young talent it’s sometimes easy to forget about the veterans like James van Riemsdyk. The Maple Leafs made the (smart) decision to keep him at the trade deadline and were rewarded down the stretch run as he scored 11 goals in the final 18 games of the regular season to help set a new career high with 36 goals.
Bruins in five games. This feels like it should be a pretty close series because the teams do seem to be pretty evenly matched in a lot of areas (forwards, goaltending, special teams) but the Bruins are simply a better defensive team and have been the best team in hockey since early November. They keep that rolling in this series. The Maple Leafs did win the season series, but two of those wins came just before the Bruins really started to hit their stride. They are a different team now than they were in the first month.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.