If the Round 1 series lives up to the hype, Maple Leafs – Bruins could very well come down to supporting cast members moving the needle while big stars duke it out.
With that in mind, the Bruins made some interesting lineup decisions heading into Game 1 (airing on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN – live stream here).
In a sense, Bruce Cassidy’s calls come down to opting for one forward, defenseman, and starting goalie over three similar options. While Cassidy might quibble with that, let’s boil it down to those three decisions, especially since Cassidy might zig and zag depending upon how the series goes.
[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
Choice 1: Tuukka Rask over Jaroslav Halak.
This one, obviously, is the most explicit. It’s also the most important, and one that could provide the most debate — at least, if the Bruins are willing to turn to Halak if Rask stumbles, which is plausible considering the sheer firepower of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Not to mention how great Frederik Andersen can be when everything’s clicking.)
In 46 games this season, Rask went 27-13-5 with a .912 save percentage. He’s enjoyed some considerable highs during his Bruins career, yet the returns have been more modest as the 32-year-old’s shown his age a bit. Since 2015-16, his save percentage has been at .917 or below. That’s not terrible by any stretch, yet there have been spans that prompted people to question Rask’s status as the No. 1 goalie.
Strong pushes from backups in recent years account for those debates as much as anything Rask’s done, and that’s been especially true with Halak in 2018-19. The often-underrated goalie sported a fantastic .922 save percentage while compiling a 22-11-4 record, and his 2010 run with the Canadiens was among the most memorable recent runs for a playoff goalie.
The good news is that, really, the Bruins have two viable choices. The bad news is that, if Rask falters, people will really second-guess this decision, especially if there are prolonged struggles.
[Toronto’s perspective: now is time for Babcock, Leafs.]
Choice 2: Karson Kuhlman instead of David Backes.
Through the first 11 games of his NHL career, Kuhlman scored three goals and two assists for five points. If the 23-year-old can keep up, Kuhlman could really help Boston push for depth beyond their deadly, possibly league-best top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Kuhlman fitting with the effective duo of David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk would allow the Bruins to try to hang with Toronto’s considerable third-line depth by keeping Charlie Coyle, Marcus Johansson, and Danton Heinen together.
It’s a small sample size, but Kuhlman’s been a strong possession player so far for Boston, so this might just work.
Really, if Backes draws back into the lineup, maybe it would be for a forward other than Kuhlman, anyway?
Choice 3: Connor Clifton plays, Steven Kampfer scratched.
Like Kuhlman, Clifton is only 23, and hasn’t been in that many games, as Clifton appeared in 19 during the 2018-19 season. (Less relevant yet fun: both of their names are also alliterative.)
On one hand, Clifton failed to score a goal and only generated one assist during those 19 games. On the other hand, he handled his 17:42 TOI pretty well, with possession stats that grade out nicely. Now, it certainly couldn’t have hurt his numbers to be paired most often with Torey Krug, but it’s better to look solid than to flounder in such a situation.
So far, the Bruins’ plan appears to be partnering Clifton with Matt Grzelcyk on the third pairing, which would likely ease some of the concerns regarding throwing a rookie into a pressure-packed situation against a dangerous opponent.
Kampfer could be a threat to bump Clifton out of the lineup, and the same can be said for John Moore if he can return from an injury. It’s possible that, inexperience and all, Clifton might be the best option of the three. Early on, Cassidy certainly seems to prefer Clifton to Kampfer.
Maple Leafs – Bruins Game 1 from TD Garden takes place on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (livestream)
For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.