Maple Leafs Panel is a weekly feature that is published throughout the season here at The Hockey Writers. THW Toronto Maple Leafs correspondents Lukas Hardonk, Mark Ascione and Raihan Hussain provide insight and analysis on the issues and events surrounding the Leafs.
For the first time since 2004, the Toronto Maple Leafs have qualified for the NHL post-season, and will square off against the Boston Bruins, a team the Leafs historically have trouble with. Going into the first playoff the city has seen in years, how do you feel the Leafs will do?
The Maple Leafs’ lack of success against the Boston Bruins in years past has been well-documented. Although Toronto managed a victory against Boston this season, they didn’t exactly come out on top by dropping three of four meetings between the two teams.
There are a few reasons why the Leafs struggled to beat the Bruins this season. One of those reasons is the positional matchup of Zdeno Chara and Phil Kessel, who went minus-four without recording a point in four games against the Bruins this season. This is largely in part to the amount of time he spent on the ice going up against one of the toughest defenders in the NHL.
A dry streak for Kessel would be terrible news in the playoffs if the Maple Leafs plan for this series to go beyond four games. He led the team in scoring with 52 points this season, 16 more than Brad Marchand, the Bruins’ leading scorer. These numbers may make it seem as though the Maple Leafs are better off offensively but they could be deceiving.
The Bruins have an abundance of depth of front. They can score up and down the lineup and there is very little drop off in points among their top forwards. Only nine points separate Marchand from the Bruins’ sixth leading scorer and their top producers contributed similar amounts, all 32 points or greater.
It would be silly to say the Maple Leafs shouldn’t worry about their performance both defensively and in the crease but those two facets of the game may be a little less important when playing the Bruins in the first round. Given Boston’s depth up front, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle must put an emphasis on producing goals and getting pucks on the Bruin net as much as possible.
If the final overall goal totals from the NHL season mean anything at this point the Maple Leafs have the edge by 14. They must continue to stretch that lead if they are to take down the Bruins in the first round.
I would say the Maple Leafs stack up fairly evenly with the Boston Bruins when it comes to physicality and offense. In fact, they are probably a better offensive team than the Bruins.
However, the defensive aspect of the game is where there is really an advantage. Only one team has Zdeno Chara, and that team will play him as much as they want. We all have seen how effectively the Bruins have used Chara in the past, escalating his minutes a ton and ordering him to just skate around the defensive zone. The Maple Leafs continue to have problems clearing the zone in the defensive end. Failure to do so has proven to be their Achilles heel all season, in which they have been burned by the Bruins in the past on plays where Toronto was hemmed in their own zone for too long.
It should be mentioned that the Leafs team this year is not the same Leafs team of a year ago that got pelted by the Bruins every time the two teams met. The games they have played this year have been much closer on the scoreboard with Toronto winning one of the four games. The Leafs will need James Reimer to stand on his head, like he has done all season in order for them to have any chance to come away with a stretch of wins in the series.
The Bruins will win this series if their defense is on par with expectations and if they are able to muster a few goals each game. This series likely won’t be a four game sweep, but Boston will win it in six games.
This could be a closely fought series. As has been said, despite having a 1-3 record against the Bruins, the Leafs were hardly doormats – two of Boston’s wins were 1-0 in regulation and 3-2 in a shootout. This Leaf team is improved in some areas over previous years.
The Leafs are better equipped to play the kind of bruising, physical game Boston is known for. And it’s not just about Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, two players who may not actually see a lot of ice in the playoffs. Overall, Randy Carlyle has employed players who like to crash and bang as part of his regular lineup. That includes Leo Komarov who registered 176 hits over the season, and Mark Fraser on defense who contributed 153 hits and 9 fights while playing almost 17 minutes a game. It’s unlikely this version of the Leafs will be intimidated by Boston’s size.
Certainly, the Leafs also have offense. The line of Kessel-Bozak-vanRiemsdyk is formidable, and a second line of Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin provided excellent support. The Bruins will rely on an experienced defense featuring Chara, Seidenberg, Redden and Ference, as well as the faceoff abilities of Bergeron to try to shut down the Leaf scorers.
It will be up to players such as Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin to chip in a few, and hopefully draw enough attention to free up Toronto’s snipers. Without some goal-scoring support from the bottom-6 forward group, it could be a short series for Toronto.
On the defensive side, the Leafs were not as solid as some might claim. Still, they were able to correct was the penalty kill. If they are able to maintain the high level of efficiency, that will go a long way to improving their chances of success.
Both teams should be concerned going into the post-season. Boston could not nail down a division win, and seemed to struggle a bit despite going 7-6-2 in April. Importantly, Tuukka Rask was 3-5-1 in 10 April appearances, something Toronto may be able to exploit. The Leafs on the other hand posted a 7-5-1 record in the last month of the season, but were routinely outshot by opponents, sometimes by huge margins. The relied heavily on James Reimer to come up huge, which could be a dangerous formula if the Leafs hope to advance.
Far from past years when the Bruins dominated the Leafs, this series could come down to Boston’s ability to refocus and channel their experience into a series win. Still, if the Maple Leafs are able to stay out of penalty trouble, they have the offensive and physical play that could make for a very interesting series – one that should go the limit.