TORONTO — It didn’t take long for John Tavares to get a feel for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ simmering rivalry with the Boston Bruins.
No stranger to heated games between New York teams during his nine seasons with the Islanders, he was left fuming after the Leafs got thumped 6-3 in Boston last month.
“It’s got to piss you off,” Tavares said after the penalty-filled loss at TD Garden on Dec. 8. “Definitely not a fun one.”
The veteran centre and his teammates will get a chance at redemption — and to potentially send a message — when the Bruins visit the Leafs for their fourth and final regular-season meeting Saturday.
“It’s always a battle against these guys,” Tavares said following practice Friday. “I’ve only been a part of it for three games and you already get that sense.”
Boston and Toronto played a hard-fought series in the first round of last spring’s playoffs, one the Bruins took in seven games.
The teams split their first two meetings this season — the Bruins won 5-1 at home on Nov. 10 before the Leafs returned the favour 16 days later with a 4-2 victory at Scotiabank Arena — to set up a testy December affair that featured a combined 98 minutes in penalties.
Leafs forward Zach Hyman was suspended two games for interference following a late hit on Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy, while Boston winger Chris Wagner took a run at Toronto blue-liner Morgan Rielly.
“Not anything we’re going to think about,” Rielly said when asked if there would be any holdover from a night that featured three of Toronto’s four fighting majors this season. “We’re just going to go out and play.”
But centre Nazem Kadri, who was suspended three games for boarding in last year’s playoffs, said the speedy, skilled Leafs won’t back down from any rough stuff.
“We won’t be pushed around,” Kadri said. “We’ve got guys standing up for each other and standing up for themselves.
“If there’s an opportunity to finish a clean hit, we’re going to do so. We don’t shy away from that physical presence, but what’s most important is the two points.”
And those points are indeed crucial with the Bruins breathing down the Leafs’ neck in the standings.
Currently second in the Atlantic Division, 12 points back of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto (28-13-2) sits four up on Boston (25-15-4) with a game in hand.
The Buffalo Sabres were two points back of the Bruins heading into Friday’s action, but even though it’s only January, there’s a decent chance Toronto and Boston could meet in the first round for a second consecutive spring.
The Leafs insist they aren’t thinking about home-ice advantage in the playoffs at this point, but there’s no doubt it will start to creep into their psyche as the second half of the schedule progresses, especially after falling 7-4 to the Bruins in Game 7 on the road in April.
“Nobody wants to go into an opposing team’s building in a Game 7,” Kadri said. “That’s something that’s tough to do. (Home ice is) definitely going to benefit us. That’s what we work all season for.”
The Leafs won’t know until Saturday morning if No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen will be back from a groin injury that has kept him on the shelf since Dec. 28. It’s expected Michael Hutchinson will get the call for a fifth straight start if Andersen can’t go.
“(It’s) progressing well,” Andersen said. “I’ll try and be positive about it, keep taking the right steps.”
For the Leafs to have success Saturday or in any future playoff series with or without Andersen, they need to find an answer for Boston’s potent top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
Bergeron, who missed more than a month of action earlier this season with a rib injury, has 62 points in 65 career regular-season games against Toronto — the centre’s most against any opponent — while Marchand’s 37 points in 39 games against the Leafs is his best showing.
Pastrnak has 18 points in 14 games against Toronto, second to only the 19 he’s scored in 15 outings versus Ottawa.
The trio also wreaked havoc in last season’s series with the Leafs, finishing with a combined 30 points.
“Not only are they skilled, they put their work ethic in front of their skill,” Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said. “They play right. They come at you with speed, with grit, with determination. They’re a real good example for our guys.
“If you want to be elite players, you’ve got to play that hard.”
Rielly conceded the Leafs need to do a better job limiting time and space for Boston’s Big 3, but added when looking at the overall picture, he’s been more than happy with Toronto’s play up to now.
“There’s lots to be happy with,” he said. “Moving forward we’re going to continue to build. We know what lies ahead.”
In the short term, that begins Saturday against the Bruins.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press