It’s that time of year again. The ice is ready, the jerseys and tickets are bought and the Toronto Maple Leafs are awaiting puck drop in Boston to take on their rivalled Bruins in Game 1 of their first-round series.
As of late, the Bruins have absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs when it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Once in 2013 – a nightmare for Leafs Nation – and again last season with both series going the distance, the Bruins came out on the winning end in both Game 7s and both in memorable fashion.
Now, the teams are set to embark on another series against each other with all expectations being that it could be another lengthy one – in the six to seven game range. Either way, when the NHL wanted to build better rivalries with their suggested playoff structure, never could they have imagined how well it would work out between the Maple Leafs and Bruins.
That said, with the puck ready to drop on the series on Thursday, here are four bolder predictions heading into the first-round matchup between these two teams.
Will Goaltending Matter?
I mean, in some way goaltending is going to matter. It’s going to come down to one save that changes the complexion of a game, that will alter the momentum. That said, with both offences seemingly high-powered and ready to score at will, this will likely be a high-scoring series.
So set aside Tuukka Rask’s 2.48 goals against average (GAA) and .912 save percentage (SV%) this season. And forget about Frederik Andersen’s 2.77 GAA and .917 SV% over his 60 appearances this season. This game is going to come down to who can make the final stop to set their team apart.
Bold Prediction: There will be an average of six goals per game in this series.
The Maple Leafs averaged 3.48 goals per game this season, while the Bruins averaged 3.16 in their 82 games. Simply put, the two teams combined to average over six goals per game during the regular season and it likely won’t settle down for their first-round series.
The Maple Leafs were led by John Tavares’ 47 goals this season, while the Bruins’ Pastrnak had 38 of his own in just 66 games. Don’t expect there to be any shortages in the scoring department for these two teams. Even if one club forgets how to put the puck in the net, look for their to be a 5-1 game or 6-2 game at some point this round.
Can Nylander Step Up?
A late start and a slow one at that, William Nylander didn’t exactly do what he would’ve liked on the offensive end of the puck this season in just 54 games. He finished the year with just seven goals and 27 points – an average of 0.5 points per game.
That said, he did pick it up slightly in the second part of his season. He started shooting the puck more often which led to more opportunities for himself as well as his linemates. He seemed to get more comfortable as the season went on and had some of his best games down the stretch for the blue and white. So what’s the expectation come playoff time?
Bold Prediction: Nylander will finish third on the Maple Leafs in playoff scoring.
He hasn’t been the most prominent playoff performer in his two career trips to the postseason. However, he still has eight points in 13 career playoff games for the Maple Leafs. That, on top of his lacklustre season, should have the young forward poised to make some noise against the Bruins in the first round.
Assuming the Maple Leafs can put everything together, Nylander should play a prominent role on the team’s third line with some power play time on top of that. Next to Tavares and Auston Matthews, expect him to battle it out with Mitch Marner for third on the team in scoring through the first round.
Whose Line is it Anyways?
Let’s talk a little bit about top lines – or at least one of the Maple Leafs’ top two lines. With most of the year to show for it, Tavares has centred Marner and Zach Hyman for the Leafs. The trio has had an incredible year with Tavares setting a new career-high in goals (47) and points (88), Marner setting career-highs in goals (26), assists (68) and points (94), and Hyman setting new marks in both goals (21) and points (41).
On the other side, the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak have always cut down the Maple Leafs with their incredible chemistry and offensive talent – even more so when it comes to the playoffs. So much so that the trio combined for 19 points in just four games against the Maple Leafs this season. But eventually, something has to change, right?
Bold Prediction: The Tavares-Marner-Hyman line will outscore the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line.
Wait, what? This will depend heavily on Tavares and Marner racking up the points in the first round as Hyman is more of the first-in, retrieve-the-puck type of player and is often unrewarded on the score sheet for his work down low. That said, all three will have to contribute if they have any chance of knocking off the highly-skilled line wearing the B’s on their chest.
That said, it is doable and with the addition of Tavares this season it’s also possible.
Maple Leafs, Bruins: Who Come Out on Top?
Finally, it’s the prediction that matters most. Which of these two teams is going to make it out of the first round – battered and bruised – but ready to take on the winner of Tampa Bay and Columbus?
Now many of you may criticize the prediction simply because I cover the team, but read it before you completely disregard what is being said.
Bold Prediction: The Maple Leafs will win over the Bruins in six games.
The regular season wasn’t very kind to the Maple Leafs again when it came to the Bruins. Boston won the season series 3-1 and outscored the Maple Leafs 16-10. That said, with rest behind them and the aging Bruins still leading the way (aside from Pastrnak), the Maple Leafs could finally get a step on the big, bad bears. On top of that, these are not the same two teams that went at it in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
“I think every team is different,” Hyman said in regards to their first-round matchup. “Our team’s not the same as it was last year and their team isn’t the same as it was last year. But rivalries are built on these playoff series and fan bases don’t forget playoff series. So I think it’s a better storyline for fans than it is for us. For us, we obviously want to beat Boston. It’s going to be a good series. We’re excited.”
Either way you look at it, this is going to be one of the best first-round series in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. With so much history between the two clubs – a lot of hate, passion and disappointment – this promises to be another one for the ages.
While the Maple Leafs will surely rely on goaltending to stop the Bruins top trio, the Bruins will also have to find a way to shut down the depth of the Maple Leafs for the length of the series – which, if all goes as planned, should be at least six games.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.