Bruins vs. Maple Leafs: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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Let’s do it all over again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will battle the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row. Last year, the series was decided over seven games, with the Bruins eventually winning on home ice in the seventh contest, 7-4.

The biggest difference between the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, is that the Leafs now have John Tavares in their lineup. The 28-year-old added 47 goals and 88 points in 82 games with his hometown team. Will that be enough to push the Leafs over the top this time around? Probably not.

Getting some added production from Auston Matthews would also help. Matthews posted just one goal and one assist in the seven-game series. He has to take his game to another level in the postseason if the Leafs are going to get by this talented Bruins team.

“It’s going to be a challenge but I think everybody in the locker room is hungry,” Matthews said. “We want to go in and be ready from the very first game and definitely send a message early.”

Sending a message early is probably a good idea. The Leafs dropped the first two games of the series in Boston last year. Toronto was able to win the first game at home to cut their series deficit to 2-1, but they ended up going back to Boston down 3-1. They were able to fend off elimination twice before eventually losing the series.

As Matthews mentioned, the Leafs have to get off to a better start if they’re going to cause an upset.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 8 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD

FORWARDS

MAPLE LEAFS: The Leafs are blessed with some of the best firepower in the league. Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, Andreas Johansson and Patrick Marleau have all the ability to create offense. If Toronto is going to go on a run, they’ll need their offense to click from the get-go. It’s the only way they could make up for the defensive lapses in their own end. Of all the teams in the league, only Tampa Bay, Calgary and San Jose scored more goals than Toronto (286). Stopping this talented group of forwards isn’t going to be easy for the Bruins.

BRUINS: Even though the Leafs may be deeper up front, the Bruins have one of the best lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. All three players averaged better than one point per game this season, and Marchand hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. The key for Boston will be for them to continue to get secondary scoring from the likes of David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk and a few others. The Bruins ranked 11th in goals scored this year, with 259.

ADVANTAGE: Maple Leafs. I’ll give the Leafs the slight advantage here only because they’re deeper group of front, but we’re splitting hairs here. Both groups have high-end forwards that can break a game wide open.

DEFENSE

MAPLE LEAFS: This is where the Leafs will have to find answers immediately. From an offensive perspective, the Leafs had one of the top point-producing defenders in the league in Morgan Rielly, who had 72 points in 82 games. Acquiring Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings was a significant move, but it still didn’t fix the defensive zone issues that have plagued the Maple Leafs all season. Veteran Ron Hainsey has seen better days, but head coach Mike Babcock still likes to use the 38-year-old quite regularly (he averaged over 20 minutes per game). The good news for Toronto, is that Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott are back from injury.

BRUINS: Zdeno Chara isn’t as dominating as he was years ago, but the 42-year-old still averages 21:05 of ice time. Charlie McAvoy has become one of the young leaders on that blue line, while Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo round out the top four. Kevan Miller will miss the opening round of the playoffs because of a lower-body injury he suffered in the final week of the regular season. Miller brings a level of physicality that the Bruins will miss against Toronto.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. The Bruins don’t have anyone that can post individual offensive numbers like Rielly, but there’s no denying that they’re way deeper on the back end than the Maple Leafs are. This is as clear of an advantage as you’ll get at any position between this two teams.

GOALTENDING

MAPLE LEAFS: Frederik Andersen has had his share of struggles down the stretch. In order for him to be sharp for the playoffs, Babcock decided that Andersen would start the final two games of the regular season. The 29-year-old finished the regular season with a 36-16-7 record with a 2.77 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage this season. He ended the season with 6-5 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, which isn’t an ideal way to go in the playoffs. The Leafs struggle with in-zone coverage, which means they’ll need their goalie to stand on his head at times if they’re going to advantage to the second round.

BRUINS: Like Andersen, Rask has struggled down the stretch, too. The 32-year-old won just one of his last four games and he allowed at least three goals or more in all three of those defeats. The Bruins have a capable backup goalie in Jaroslav Halak, but they need Rask to take his game to another level at this crucial moment. Rask finished the year with a 27-13-5 record with a 2.48 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage this season.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. Both goalies are struggling heading into the playoffs, so whichever one can find their game the quickest will give their team the best chance to win. But heading into the series, it’s hard not give the advantage to Rask. He has more experience and playoff success than Andersen. But this should be an even battle.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will the Maple Leafs’ in-zone coverage hold up?

As much as the coaching staff has tried to solve this issue, they still haven’t been able to figure it out. The Leafs tend to make critical mistakes in their own end. They might be able to get away with during the season, but they can’t keep making the same errors in April. Is there any way they can straighten themselves out now? They may just have outscore the Bruins every night?

Can Rask get the job done for the Bruins?

Again, the Bruins have the luxury of having a quality backup in Jaroslav Halak (the Leafs have no such luxury), but if they’re going to go on a run they’ll need their number one goalie to help carry the load. If he struggles against a potent offense like Toronto’s, Boston could be in tough.

PREDICTION

BRUINS IN 5. The Bruins have been playing incredible well for a long time. I can’t see them dropping this series. I think they’ll finish the Maple Leafs off in five games.

MORE PREVIEWS:
Islanders vs. Penguins
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

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.

Capitals vs. Rangers livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington defeated the Rangers 5-2 on home ice earlier this season. Caps forward T.J. Oshie tallied two power play goals, while defenseman John Carlson notched three assists to help Washington continue their dominance over the Blueshirts.

The Capitals currently own the best record in the NHL (16-3-4 – 36 points) and have just one regulation loss in their last 16 games. Washington is averaging an NHL-best 3.74 goals per game and have scored the most goals in the league by far (86). They’ve been especially dominant on the road. Their only regulation road loss came on Oct. 10 in a 6-5 loss at Nashville, and they are currently on a nine-game road point streak. They own the best road record in the league (10-1-1).

The Rangers had an impressive 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins last week but followed that up with two disappointing losses in Florida. New York got obliterated by the Lightning on Thursday night, losing 9-3 in Tampa, and then blew a 3-2 second period lead against the Panthers on Saturday, falling 4-3 in regulation.

Mika Zibanejad will not suit up for Wednesday’s game as he is still recovering from an upper-body injury. Zibanejad has not played since suffering the injury on Oct. 27 against the Bruins. Wednesday will be his 10th consecutive game missed.

The Rangers will be getting their second-overall draft pick back after he missed the last two games with the flu. Kaapo Kakko was scratched prior to Thursday’s game against the Lighting and did not play in Saturday’s loss against the Panthers as he was still feeling ill. After a slow start to the season, Kakko has been one of New York’s top scorers as of late. The 18-year-old is coming off his first two-goal outing of his career in last week’s 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins, and he also tallied the first OT winner of his NHL career.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaLars Eller – T.J. Oshie
Richard Panik – Mike Sgarbossa – Travis Boyd
Beck Malenstyn – Chandler StephensonBrendan Leipsic

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris KreiderFilip ChytilPavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Kaapo Kakko
Tim Gettinger – Greg McKeggBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Rangers from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN following Wednesday Night Hockey. Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league. You can watch it live here.

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.