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.

PHT Morning Skate: Appreciating Tampa; 2019 Kraft Hockeyville winner

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

John Tavares is going back to Long Island, again, but the crowd reaction will probably be the same. (Toronto Star)

Morgan Rielly has found a way to hit the 20-goal mark this season. (Leafs Nation)

• Check out this preview of the Men’s Frozen Four Tournament. (USCHO)

• How many more 50-goal seasons to Alex Ovechkin have left in the tank? (The Hockey News)

Tuukka Rask has picked a bad time to go into a little slump. (Bruins Daily)

• There’s plenty of unanswered questions when it comes to the CWHL folding. (Sportsnet)

• The Ice Garden breaks down a list of things we know and don’t know about the CWHL folding. (Ice Garden)

• Now that the Golden Knights have locked up a playoff spot, what’s next? (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Flames will probably face an Avalanche team that they’ve had success against this season. (Flames Nation)

• We just passed the one-year anniversary of Scott Foster’s emergency appearance with the Chicago Blackhawks. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• We have to appreciate everything the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning have accomplished. (Spector’s Hockey)

• The Oilers will miss the playoffs again this year, but it’s not all bad in Edmonton. (Oilers Nation)

• Calumet, Michigan was named Kraft Hockeyville USA for 2019. (NHL)

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.

Blackhawks survive late Leafs assault to win fourth straight

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Score five straight goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs and hold on for dear life.

It’s a plan that the Chicago Blackhawks executed to perfection (planned or otherwise) on Wednesday night in a ___ win against their Original Six foes. And my goodness did they ever have to hold on.

Chicago came out with the determination of a team needing two points to keep their playoff dreams going. They scored four times in the first period — chasing Frederik Andersen after he allowed four on 14 shots — and added a fifth later in the second period, appearing to seal it with less than half a game to go.

The Leafs have been struggling since beating the Calgary Flames 6-2. And it’s unraveled now, after getting made to look like the JV squad against the Tampa Bay Lightning and then decimated once again against the Blackhawks.

A 5-0 deficit seemed like the next chapter in their recent story, but Andreas Johnsson‘s goal with 1:33 left in the second period seemed to give the Leafs some life.

The Leafs owned the third period, with Chicago looking content to sit back and wait for the final buzzer. It didn’t help Chicago’s cause that Corey Crawford, who was solid through the first two periods, didn’t emerge for the third after falling ill with the flu. Collin Delia had to come in cold and the game became very interesting.

Auston Matthews and Co. went to work in the third. Matthews grabbed his 32nd of the season at 7:57 of the period followed by Morgan Rielly‘s 19th three minutes later to make it 5-3. With the net empty and 1:31 to go, John Tavares clawed the Leafs back to 5-4, banging in a shot from a bad angle past Delia to set a new career high with his 39th.

Toronto fired 30 pucks on goal in final frame, with Delia getting a game’s worth of shots sent his way in a 20-minute span of complete chaos.

The final 90 seconds, particularly, were epic and well worth the watch.

When the dust settled after the final whistle, the Blackhawks moved four points back of the idle Arizona Coyotes for the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference. ‘

The odds aren’t great, but all Chicago can do is keep winning and let the chips fall where they may.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL determines Maple Leafs’ Rielly did not use homophobic slur

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The NHL has determined that Morgan Rielly did not utter a homophobic slur at referee Brad Meier during Monday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman was skating back into the defensive zone when television microphones picked up audio that sounded like it was directed at the official.

Here’s the statement the NHL released on Tuesday afternoon:

“Following a thorough investigation, the National Hockey League has determined that Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly did not direct a homophobic slur at referee Brad Meier during last night’s game with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Scotiabank Arena.

“League officials interviewed several participants of the participants in the game — including Rielly and Meier — and reviewed audio of the alleged incident. All of those interviewed adamantly denied that Rielly uttered a slur and the audio supported their statements.

“The National Hockey League does not tolerate language or gestures that disparage anyone based upon their race, creed or sexual orientation and continues to work to ensure that our games are played in a welcoming atmosphere for all of our players, coaches, officials, and fans.”

Following the game the NHL announced they would be investigating the alleged incident and Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas released a statement supporting the league in determining whether the accusations were true.

“I was 100 percent confident that I did not use the word,” Rielly said while meeting the media on Tuesday afternoon. “There is no place for slurs like that in sports or in life.”

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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.

The Buzzer: A night for clunky defensemen

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Three Stars

1. Ryan O'Reilly

Confession: usually, I giggle when people make a big deal about faceoffs.

It’s been argued, persuasively, that the impact of FWs (faceoff wins, for you non-fantasy people) is often exaggerated. And I agree with those arguments, as much as I feel like I’m affronting the memory of Rod Brind’Amour.

But sometimes stuff like that can provide a portal to other realizations, like the fact that Ryan O’Reilly is putting in serious work for the Blues.

Most obviously, O’Reilly scored a goal and an assist for the Blues in their eyebrow-raising, up-and-down win against the Ducks. Those two points were crucial.

Yet, Troy Terry might technically be the better choice here, as he had three points (all assists, two of them primary) in this same game.

O’Reilly’s overall work really stood out, however, and it starts with the work in the faceoff circle. He went 23-16 on draws, which is just a ridiculous workload for a regular season game that … honestly, only means so much. (The Blues are pretty comfortably placed as the Central’s third seed, in my opinion.)

ROR also logged an impressive 24:37 TOI on Wednesday, more than Colton Parayko (24:21) and only slightly less than Alex Pietrangelo (24:41).

Even beyond Terry, there are other Blues who have arguments for the top three. Robert Thomas inspired Matchbox 20 jokes with two goals. Pietrangelo scored a goal and an assist, as did Brayden Schenn.

Yet, it’s that all-around effort that makes me roar for ROR. I understand if you disagree.

(Consider those other mentions as part of the collective roar argument.)

2. Marc-Andre Fleury

Flames – Golden Knights was a tight 2-1 game, in large part because of the goaltending, as the two teams combined for 72 shots on goal.

Fleury didn’t keep his shutout streak active after blanking opponents for two consecutive games, yet “The Flower” only allowed a single goal against the very-much-flammable Calgary offense, making 33 out of 34 saves.

This is as much as weeklong achievement award as anything else, but even if you just keep it to Wednesday, Fleury was excellent.

I’ve made repeated comments about the Golden Knights needing to rest MAF, and I stand by them, but this was impressive stuff.

3. Alex Ovechkin

From MAF to the rare player who’s often tormented him, we have Ovechkin, who scored a goal and assist, and was just one heady Ivan Provorov play from adding another goal.

Ovechkin continues to make history, and delightfully, he didn’t just do his usual “from the office” thing on Wednesday. Granted, he kind of did, as he scored from that basic spot for his goal, but even then, he needed to “reload” his shot rather than ripping a one-timer.

But it was his pass that really sealed the deal, for me anyway. More on Ovechkin in the rest of The Buzzer …

Highlights of the Night

Including that pass, which set up a Tom Wilson goal:

The Blues managed a staggering win by scoring two goals in 12 seconds in the final minute of the third period against the Ducks:

The other highlight of the night comes next.

Defensemen score goals – clunky and otherwise

The headline revolves around two defensemen scoring unexpected goals. Deryk Engelland scored the game-winning goal for the Golden Knights, while Mitch Marner really set the table for Ron Hainsey(!) to score shorthanded (!!).

But, really, it was a night for defensemen scoring goals in general, whether they’re the ones you’d expect or not.

  • That Golden Knights win against the Flames was all-defensemen goals. Engelland scored, along with a guy you’d expect in Shea Theodore (his 11th of the season), and someone in the middle (Travis Hamonic scored his seventh of 2018-19).
  • Alexander Edler‘s still a worthy contributor, but you don’t really expect the Canucks veteran to score overtime game-winners. He did so on Wednesday, while a very-much expected Maple Leafs defenseman (Morgan Rielly) helped Toronto at least secure a standings point.
  • Six-foot-five Flyers defenseman Philippe Myers scored his first NHL goal. (His nickname better be Philly, or some variation of it.) Ducks defenseman Jaycob Megna is another huge hockey human (listed at six-foot-six) who scored his first career NHL goal on Wednesday. Something was in the air, wasn’t it?

Factoids

So, to review, Ovechkin has more 45+ goal seasons than Wayne Gretzky/Mario Lemieux/Mike Bossy, etc., while Holtby’s winning at a rate that only falls short of the author of “The Game.”

  • Another Canadiens great, Jacques Plante, was third behind Holtby. His name came up again on Wednesday, as Fleury tied Plante with 437 wins, leaving them tied for eighth all-time in NHL history.

Scores

WSH 5 – PHI 3
VAN 3 – TOR 2 (OT)
STL 5 – ANA 4
VGK 2 – CG 1

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.