It’s official: the Toronto Maple Leafs will face the Boston Bruins in the first round the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s up to the Leafs to make it so a loss in that first round isn’t quite as set in stone.
Maple Leafs vs. Bruins
Truth be told, the Maple Leafs hold an 8-7 all-time series edge over the Bruins. Still, the Leafs have lost their last five meetings, dating back to the first round of the 1968-69 postseason. Coincidentally, that was the Leafs’ first series after their 1967 Stanley Cup, the last they’ve won. So, whether you like it or not, the streaks of futility last the same amount of time.
All five losses have come in the first round, but somehow that doesn’t numb the pain. In fact, it’s fair to say the last two, last playoffs and again in 2013, have been particularly devastating. There’s no point recounting why exactly, but without getting too much into it: Each involved a 3-1 series-deficit comeback only to result in a Game 7 loss, during which the Leafs held a third-period lead.
Maple Leafs on the Rise
If it’s any consolation, the Maple Leafs have been out of the first round many times since their last Stanley Cup victory. Unfortunately, with the divisions aligned the way they are and the Tampa Bay Lightning being as good as they are, the Maple Leafs are almost a victim of their own recent success.
There’s no denying the Leafs are one of the league’s top teams. Heading into NHL action Tuesday night, they own the fifth-best record, after all. They’re also arguably on their way up as a team with an impressive core up front, a potential James Norris Memorial Trophy candidate in Morgan Rielly and even one of a handful of legitimate Vezina Trophy favorites in net in Frederik Andersen.
Only Andersen, who turns 30 at the start of next season, is what you would consider at risk of exiting his prime during the Leafs’ current window to win it all. Rielly just turned 25, while the dynamic duo of leading-scorer Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews up front are each 21. Even John Tavares, who’s providing a great return on investment on his seven-year, $77 million deal so far, is only 28.
Tavares Leads Maple Leafs
Tavares’ career-best 46-goal season could not have come at a better time, with the Leafs looking to make noise in the playoffs and move past the first round for the first time since 2004. This is in large part why the Leafs acquired him. It wasn’t just for the press generated by that photo of him as a hometown kid in those sheets growing up. It was to win.
The Maple Leafs need to seize this opportunity and prove the Tavares signing wasn’t all for naught. They need to take that next step to capitalize on the strength of their current core and, despite the youth they possess, the time they have to do it is far from infinite.
That isn’t to say Tavares won’t part of the solution, if they can’t pull it off. He very well can be, even if he likely won’t be as prolific at age 34 at the end of his contract. Still, teammate and elder statesman Patrick Marleau was still a 70-point guy at that age. Not so much anymore at age 39 admittedly, as the Leafs push Marleau down the lineup, but he’s only got another year left on his deal.
Time Is Finite for Maple Leafs
The rest of the core looks like it will be together for the next two seasons at least (when Andersen’s deal expires; Rielly’s deal expires in three after this one). Adjustments will nevertheless have to be made this offseason to get the Leafs over this hump, if they can’t pull Excalibur out of the stone in which their playoff fates are set and slay the dragon that is the Bruins this time around.
Those two seasons gives these Maple Leafs a few more kicks at the can, but the new Seattle franchise is only slated to join the league for 2021-22. Even then, divisional realignment isn’t guaranteed to help the Leafs out of their current predicament: Even if they usurp the Lightning as the best in the Atlantic Division in that time, there’s a good chance they would have to face the Bruins in one of the first rounds, because of the current format.
Unfortunately, all roads all seem to lead to and hopefully, finally, through the Bruins. That’s the only way this season can be considered a success with a first-round victory, or else it’s back to the drawing board.
The Bruins aren’t necessarily in the Maple Leafs’ collective head. That’s hard to prove. There’s more of a case to be made that the Bruins are simply the better team. The Leafs’ 1-3 record this season and playoff history against them is at least an indication they are. What’s most important for the Leafs is to get a sign they themselves are better than they were, though. Having gotten as close as possible to the second round without having actually won, they have no choice but to do it now.
It’s not just that the Maple Leafs need to prove something to themselves by beating the Bruins. They simply need to beat them, literally in the first round this spring and likely at some point during their current window to win it all. Only by exorcising a 50-year-old demon can the Maple Leafs begin to hope to break a 52-year-old curse and hoist the Stanley Cup again.