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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.

The Buzzer: Georgiev shines again; big days for Scheifele, Barkov

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Three Stars

1. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. It was a pretty dominant win for the Rangers on Sunday evening as they picked up a 5-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights thanks to some big offensive contributions from their blue line and another goal from superstar free agent signing Artemi Panarin. It was also another great day for Georgiev as he continued his recent stretch of great play, stopping all 38 shots he faced for his second shutout in his past four appearances. His save percentage for the season is now above .920 while he has allowed just four goals in his past four games.

2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg has been one of the big surprise stories in the league this season as they continue to make things work and collect points with a mostly makeshift defensive lineup. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been the big star for them this season — and he was great again on Sunday — but it was Scheifele that stepped up in a big way against the Anaheim Ducks with a pair of goals in a 3-2 win. He has now scored goals in three consecutive games.

3. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers. The Panthers were dominant on Sunday afternoon against a struggling San Jose Sharks team (read more about them here), and it was Barkov helping to get things rolling with an early goal and assist to get them out to an early 2-0 lead. He is now on a five-game point streak and is continuing to show this season how he is one of the league’s best all-around players. Alongside Jonathan Huberdeau they give the Panthers one of the best scoring duos in the league.

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • Colin Miller has been a healthy scratch quite often this season but was in the lineup on Sunday and helped the Buffalo Sabres get two huge points by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime.
  • Carl Soderberg helped the Coyotes erase a two-goal deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks by setting up one goal and then tying the game on a power play goal.

Highlights of the Night

Robin Lehner may not be able to stop anything in the shootout (read more about that here) but he is pretty great during regulation. This save on Clayton Keller was his best of the night on Sunday to help get the game to overtime.

The other goalie in that game, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, is also pretty outstanding and made a great save of his own to help them get another win to move back into a tie for first place in the Pacific Division.

Jack Eichel continued his brilliant season and extended his point streak by helping set up Colin Miller’s game-winning goal in overtime for the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.

Image(s) of the Night

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson takes Blake Wheeler‘s stick out of his hands and calmly placed it on top of the net.

Factoids

  • Thanks to points from Marc Staal, Tony DeAngelo, Jacob Trouba, and Ryan Lindgren the Rangers now have more points from their blue line this season than any team in the NHL this season, moving ahead of both the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Huberdeau moved ahead of Stephen Weiss for second place on the Panthers’ all-time scoring list. [Florida Panthers PR]
  • The Coyotes’ win in Chicago on Sunday was their third multi-goal comeback win this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Winnipeg Jets 3, Anaheim Ducks 2
Florida Panthers 5, San Jose Sharks 1
New York Rangers 5, Vegas Golden Knights 0
Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3 (SO)
Buffalo Sabres 3, Edmonton Oilers 2 (OT)

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.

Lehner’s shootout struggles continue in Blackhawks’ loss

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Robin Lehner has been one of the very few bright spots for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, and he was really good again on Sunday night in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

He stopped 44 shots, gave his team a chance to win on a night where they probably did not deserve the one point they ended up getting in the standings, and made an absolutely incredible save on a wide open Clayton Keller to keep the game tied mid-way through the third period.

For 65 minutes he was mostly outstanding, just as he has been all season. Sunday’s performance keeps his season save percentage at .929 — among the best marks in the league — as he continues to help mask the flaws of a bad defensive team and gives them a chance to win in almost every appearance he makes.

He has just had one major Achilles heel that showed itself again on Sunday — he can not stop anything in a shootout.

By allowing two goals on the only two shots shots he faced on Sunday to the Coyotes, he is now 0-3 in shootouts this season and has allowed six goals on seven shots.

This is not a new problem, either.

Dating back to the start of the 2015-16 season Lehner has won just one of the 14 shootouts he has participated with a .357 save percentage. Of the 75 goalies that have faced at least 10 shots in shootouts during that stretch, Lehner is one of just two goalies that has stopped fewer than 50 percent of the attempts against him. The only player with a worse mark is Michael Hutchinson, who has a .333 mark. Hutchinson has only faced 12 shots. Lehner has faced 42 shots.

The thing that has to be especially frustrating this season is that in the three shootouts he has lost he has been the only reason the Blackhawks were even in the games.

Back on Oct. 22 Lehner stopped 33 out of 34 shots against the Vegas Golden Knights in a game where he received one goal of offensive support in regulation. He then allowed two goals on three shots in the shootout.

It was a similar story on Nov. 23 when he stopped 40 out of 41 shots against Dallas and again only received one goal of support. He allowed two goals on two shots in the shootout.

Lehner was asked on Sunday if he has gone back and looked at things since his most recent shootout loss to see if there is anything he can improve on or do differently.

“I have. We are still working on it,” said Lehner. “We will see what happens. We will see what happens. It is what it is. I am positive about it — just not very good at it. Have to get better, keep working on it, keep finding another way.”

As for the Coyotes, their win on Sunday, combined with the Edmonton Oilers’ overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres, puts them in a tie for first place in the Pacific Division with 40 points. The Oilers currently have the tiebreaker due to more regulation wins.

Related: What is driving Coyotes’ fast start, and can they maintain it?

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.

Sharks still in trouble after miserable Florida weekend

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About a week ago the San Jose Sharks looked like they were getting back on track. They had won 11 out of 13 games, were climbing back up the standings, and starting to finally resemble the team that was supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender.

They were probably a little fortunate during that hot streak thanks to a bunch of one-goal wins, including a perfect 4-0 mark in games that went beyond regulation, but after the start they had they really need to stack up some points. To their credit, they did.

But after Sunday’s ugly 5-1 loss in Florida, which game just 24 hours after an even uglier 7-1 loss in Tampa Bay, the Sharks have now lost four games in a row and are just 6-8-2 away from the Shark Tank this season. This ugly Florida trip, which saw them be outscored by a 12-2 margin, also dropped their season goal-differential to a miserable minus-23, which is currently the second-worst in the Western Conference and one of the five worst in the entire NHL.

If you wanted to be an optimist about this team you could point to the fact that even with all of their struggles they are still just two points back of the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, still have enough talent on their roster to win, and still have 50 games remaining in the regular season to turn things around.

The problem with that is they have played more games (in many cases multiple games) than every team around them in the playoff race, while their point percentage (.500 as of Sunday night) is only 25th in the NHL, right between the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks, two teams that are going nowhere. They are only on pace for 82 points at the moment and still have a gigantic problem in goal. They were so dominant a year ago that they were able to mostly outplay their goaltending issues. They are not that dominant this season, and we are starting to get to a point where we are getting an idea of what every team is capable of and what they are.

The most concerning number for the Sharks is that goal-differential, because teams that get outscored by this many goals at this point in the season do not tend to get back on track. It is very simple: If you’re getting outscored by this many goals, and getting blown out this many times, it is probably a bad sign for how good your team actually is.

The Sharks have already lost 12 games this season by three goals or more. Only the Detroit Red Wings, a team that is looking to be historically bad, have lost more (14). The New Jersey Devils have only lost nine games by three goals or more. The Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers have only lost eight such games. These are teams that do not figure to be factors in the playoffs, and the Sharks are sitting there among them.

The Sharks’ wins are mostly close, one-goal games, and they have probably been very fortunate to be as good as they have in them (including 5-2 in OT/Shootouts), while they are getting completely blown out in their losses.

Not concerning enough?

Just consider these numbers as well.

— Over the past 10 years there have been 26 teams that have had a goal differential of minus-23 or worse through their first 32 games.

Do you know how many of those teams went on to make the playoffs that season?

Zero.

— Go back to the start of the 2005-06 season and teams in that situation are 0-for-40 in terms of making the playoffs.

— The last time a team with a goal differential this bad, at this point in the season, came back to make the playoffs was the 1997-98 Edmonton Oilers, who snuck into the No. 8 seed (with a losing record).

It might be early, and they may still be within striking distance of a playoff spot in the standings, but things are looking bleak for a team that still has the Stanley Cup in mind.

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.

 

 

Backstrom expected to return for Capitals vs. Blue Jackets

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Nicklas Backstrom had a smile on his face and no concerns about missing another game.

“I’m good to go,” Backstrom said. “It’s like that guy in `Mighty Ducks.’ I woke up, no pain.”

Backstrom was referring to the fictional Adam Banks character who returned from a wrist injury in time for a championship game. The Washington Capitals are getting the real standout Swedish center back while they’re on a roll.

The Capitals are expected to have Backstrom back Monday when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets. He missed the past eight games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, and Washington went 6-1-1 in that time.

With Backstrom ready to go, the Capitals are set to have their full, healthy lineup on the ice for the first time this season. Despite injuries, they lead the NHL with 22 wins and 49 points through 31 games.

“As of right now, we are playing good hockey and we are getting the points we needed,” Backstrom said Sunday. “It is still early in the season, so you have to keep build, build and build. We are a team that is building for upcoming things.”

Upcoming are matchups against the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a popular preseason pick to win the Stanley Cup. But Backstrom is of course referring to the playoffs, where the Capitals are looking to bounce back from last season’s first-round exit and make another championship run like they did in 2018.

There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do that, especially given their success more than a quarter of the way through the season without the full complement of healthy bodies.

“That shows the depth that we have all the way through our lineup,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s been a good problem to have, and it’s allowed us to see some other players get opportunities and showcase some of the abilities they have.”

Backstrom’s return puts Washington’s lineup back in regular order. He’ll take his regular place between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, allowing Reirden to keep the hot second line of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie together.

Braden Holtby is expected to start in goal against Columbus.