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Bruins vs. Maple Leafs: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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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.

Schedule

Forwards

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.

Defense

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.

Goaltending

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.

Special Teams

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.

X-Factors

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.

Prediction

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.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach HymanWilliam NylanderConnor Brown

Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakLeo Komarov

Matt MartinTomas PlekanecKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Travis DermottConnor Carrick

Starting Goalie: Frederik Andersen

[Maple Leafs – Sabres preview.]

Buffalo Sabres

Zemgus GirgensonsRyan O'ReillySam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJason Pominville

Jordan NolanJacob JosefsonKyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot — Kyle Criscuolo — Nicholas Baptiste

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Brendan Guhle — Casey Nelson

Nathan BeaulieuVictor Antipin

Starting Goalie: Chad Johnson

NHL planning more outdoor games at U.S. service academies

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The NHL’s first outdoor game at a U.S. service academy probably won’t be its last.

After the Washington Capitals hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Naval Academy, the league hopes to play games at Army’s West Point and the Air Force Academy over the next few years.

It’s a significant foray into honoring and partnering with branches of the military that follows the lead of the NFL and Major League Baseball for a league that’s split between the United States and Canada.

“It’s unique and as we continue to move forward with the outdoor games, you look for new concepts and new themes and new things that’ll interest the fans,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Certainly the hope is, with a successful game (at Navy), we’ll continue the venture with the Army and the Air Force and we’ll see where we go from there.”

Daly said he’d be surprised if the sequel to Maple Leafs-Capitals at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium comes as soon as the 2018-19 season, though 2019-20 is a possibility. The Florida Panthers faced the New Jersey Devils inside in an exhibition game at West Point’s Tate Rink in 2006, and ownership connections to the Army make the Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights strong candidates for a potential outdoor game there.

American-born players taking part in the game at Navy said they were honored to get the opportunity. Told of the NHL’s future plans to attempt games at Army and Air Force, Maple Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey called it “a great road for us to go down.”

“It’s a nice recognition and a little partnership almost that we’re able to play here,” American-born Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I think means different things to different people. As a country, it means a lot, especially the Americans that play in the league and our fans.”

The NHL has 24 American- and seven Canadian-based teams and is made up of about 49 percent Canadian-born players. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces took part in pregame ceremonies with the Maple Leafs, and Daly said involving a team from north of the 48th parallel was a conscious decision that didn’t meet any resistance.

“I think North American forces are united,” Daly said. “I think there’s a real appreciation for the military wherever you are, north or south of the border. While it was something we certainly thought about, it certainly hasn’t been something that’s been an obstacle at all.”

When Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, native Mike Babcock moved to Spokane, Washington, he recalled the deep connections to the military from those stationed at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base or just residents who served or knew someone who was in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps. So he’s very attuned to the comparisons and contrasts for the military in the United States and Canada.

“When you talk to families in the U.S., there seems to be someone in every family that’s had someone in the family,” the Maple Leafs’ coach said. “When you do it in Canada, we don’t have as big a military, so we haven’t had that same thing. That doesn’t mean we don’t have tons of people doing a really good job and doing everything they can.”

Babcock said he didn’t know how the NHL would make an outdoor game work at a place like the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, and Daly acknowledged the service academies are different in the United States. They also provide the kind of outdoor venues that fit hockey well.

“It’s just a different atmosphere,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said before playing at 34,000-seat Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. I think football stadiums and baseball stadiums, which I’ve played in, they’re amazing. But to have a kind of unique atmosphere and history to this place and from a fan’s point of view the sightlines and all that are way better at a place like this than a 60,000-seat football field.”

Being part of a historic atmosphere is one thing players, American and otherwise, cited as an added value to this Stadium Series game.

“As Americans, I’m sure if you’re from a different country, it probably doesn’t quite feel that way, but for us it does feel really special,” Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s great for the NHL, it’s great for hockey and it’s great for the Americans that are able to play in the games.”

The NFL has partnered with the military for years, and the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins played at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in 2016. The NHL is now wading into those waters with more to come.

“The recognition that (servicemen and women) deserve, I guess, is probably a lot more than everyone’s doing,” Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner said. “To play some sporting events at places like this is pretty cool.”

WATCH LIVE: NHL Stadium Series 2018 – Capitals vs. Leafs

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NBC’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals face off in a 2018 Stadium Series game at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland at 8 p.m. ET. You can catch all of the action on NBC or our live stream by clicking here.

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Toronto Maple Leafs
Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner
Zach HymanTomas PlekanecWilliam Nylander
James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown
Leo KomarovDominic MooreKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRoman Polak

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

[NHL On NBC: Maple Leafs, Capitals meet outside in Stadium Series]

[WATCH LIVE]

Washington Capitals
Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Brett ConnollyLars EllerAndre Burakovsky
Chandler StephensonJay BeagleDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Chicago Blackhawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Wednesday as the Chicago Blackhawks host the Toronto Maple Leafs at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

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Blackhawks
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair
Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman
Tomas Jurco – David Kampf – Vinnie Hinostroza

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle
Michal KempnyConnor Murphy
Erik Gustafsson – Brent Seabrook

Starting goalie: Jeff Glass

[NHL on NBCSN: Struggling Maple Leafs take on slumping Blackhawks]

Maple Leafs
Zach HymanAuston MatthewsWilliam Nylander
Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner
James van RiemsdykTyler BozakConnor Brown
Leo KomarovDominic Moore – Kasperi Kapanen

Jake GardinerRon Hainsey
Travis Dermott – Connor Carrick
Andreas BorgmanRoman Polak

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE