In this year’s run for the Stanley Cup, the biggest threat for the Toronto Maple Leafs will be the Boston Bruins, hands down. At one time, the Vegas Golden Knights were a threat but since that low point on New Year’s Eve, the Leafs have stood their ground – with the exception of the Bruins, whose physicality has been their kryptonite. For the Leafs, it’s not a matter of scoring because they do score. And it’s not a matter of playing a more “defense-first” style of game because they’ve made huge strides in that direction. It’s something else completely.
The Bruins are second overall in the Atlantic Division but for the last week, they’ve been going back and forth between the first and second spot with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now that the Bruins have some of their key forwards back in the lineup, they could find themselves at the top once again.
If they do, they won’t play against the Maple Leafs in the first round. Instead, they’ll play against the first wild-card spot, which is looking to be the Philadelphia Flyers. Assuming the Bruins and Leafs win in the first round, they’ll play against each other in the second. Regardless of what happens, these teams will likely play against each other this postseason – it’s simply a matter of when.
The Facade of Brad Marchand
The Bruins are fast, just like the Leafs, but one thing they have that the Leafs don’t is a big, bruising style of play and that has literally stopped opponents in their tracks. Although the Leafs have beaten the Bruins three out of four contests this season, their game on Feb. 3, 2017, was a beautiful demonstration of who the Bruins really are when everyone is healthy. Except, that night they didn’t have Brad Marchand.
Marchand isn’t the only reason why the Bruins are so good. He’s just one reason. But the truth is, the Bruins may only have a handful of reasons that make them such a good team: Their top line is unprecedented, Marchand ranks second in the league for most points-per-game played (P/GP), Torey Krug ranks eighth in the league for most points by defensemen, and Charlie McAvoy ranks fifth in the league for most P/GP by rookie defensemen.
The Bruins also rank second in the league for fewest goals against, which means the whole team as a unit plays a defensively strong game. We can also look at other statistics like power play and penalty kill percentage where they also rank well compared to other teams.
But what they don’t have is depth and that’s a problem in the playoffs.
Injuries Reveal a Lack of Depth
Unfortunately, no amount of Marchand can make up for a lack of depth. When the Leafs beat the Bruins on Nov. 10 and Nov. 11 earlier this season, the Bruins were missing forwards David Backes and David Krejci, as well as defensemen Adam McQuaid and Matt Grzelcyk. And when they played again on Feb. 24, 2017, the Leafs just barely won 4-3, thanks to Ron Hainsey, who scored the game-winning goal with just under a minute and a half left in the game. That night, Marchand fought really hard for the win, having scored two of the Bruins’ three goals.
Last year, Krug suffered a lower-body injury during the second to last game of the regular season. As a result, he missed the playoffs. He is a key piece of their defensive corps, as he ranked fifth in scoring among the NHL’s defensemen last year. His absence left a gaping hole on the backend as well as in their top power-play unit. Some say if he wasn’t injured the Bruins would have won the first round. It probably didn’t help that Krejci, the Bruins’ third top goal-scorer, was also injured and was only able to play in three out of six games.
The Bruins are a perfect example of how a lack of depth can cripple a team when it comes to the playoffs. Although they were ranked as one of the best teams in the league for much of the season, it’s because injuries healed over time and eventually those game-winning players returned to the lineup to even things up. But during the playoffs, there’s not that much time available; they need every top player they have to play their best in every single game.
The absence of two top defensemen six games before the playoffs isn’t good. McAvoy sprained his knee at the beginning of March and he’s still not back in the lineup. He’s one of the Bruins’ newest and brightest first-round draft pick defensemen who knows how to make a hit. And then there’s captain, Zdeno Chara, who’s also still injured and has missed his last eight games. If the Bruins could get these two guys back in the lineup by the playoffs, it will make a world of difference.
At the end of the day, will it really matter if the Leafs aren’t as physical as the Bruins? Perhaps not. Playing against Marchand is no walk in the park for anyone but now that we know he’s not capable of winning a playoff series all on his own, maybe his presence is irrelevant. The absence of multiple other key players, on the other hand, will hurt the Bruins in ways that Marchand can never make up for. The biggest threat to the Leafs this postseason will be when they play the Bruins if they have a completely healthy roster.