The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins meet for the second year in a row in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs beginning Thursday night at TD Garden. It is nearly impossible for anyone analyzing this series to look at the matchup without factoring in the Leafs two third-period collapses in Game 7 six years ago and last April.
The series is one of only two in the first round where both clubs have 100 points or more, and one critical decision, mistake or shortcoming could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Continuing the breakdown of the Boston - Toronto series, we look at the defense and special teams.
Boston’s blueline will start the playoffs shorthanded, as defenseman Kevan Miller is out with a lower-body injury and with John Moore not available to start the series. That likely means that sophomore Matt Grzelcyk will partner with Steven Kampfer or rookie Connor Clifton on the bottom pairing and that there will be more of a burden placed on the Bruins top four.
Zdeno Chara is not the dominating presence he was a decade ago, but the 42-year-old still has an impact on the game with his strength and wingspan. Charlie McAvoy shook off early season concussion issues and led the Bruins in average time-on-ice(22:10). Brandon Carlo is a big body who eats up minutes and Torey Krug led all Boston blueliners with 53 points, registering 30 quarterbacking the power play.
Toronto's defense corps continues to be the club’s Achilles heel and focal point of concern entering the post-season. Morgan Rielly will be a Norris Trophy finalist after scoring 20 goals and a career-high 72 points. Babcock will heavily rely on Rielly and 38-year-old Ron Hainsey as a matchup pair against the Bergeron line, with question marks on the other two pairings.
Jake Gardiner’s back injury kept the speedy defenseman out for five weeks late in the season and his durability will be a question throughout the series. Nikita Zaitsev was inconsistent in his third season with the Leafs, but will be heavily depended on as the club’s only right-handed defenseman and as a member of their top penalty-killing unit.
Jake Muzzin has not the impact that was anticipated when acquired from Los Angeles in January, and will partner with sophomore Travis Dermott, whose responsibilities will increase if Gardiner gets hurt.
Depth is another concern for Toronto, with the woeful Martin Marincin and inexperienced Calle Rosen as their fallback options.
Both clubs have top end power play units. The Bruins finished third in the NHL on the power play at 25.9% and led the league at home at 31.8%. The Leafs were eighth at 21.8% but were dead last in the NHL with 221 opportunities.
Boston and Toronto were both middle of the pack (tied for 16th at 79.9%) on the penalty kill, but the Leafs finished 30th in the league in short-handed opportunities (204), while the Bruins had to kill 40 more penalties during the season. With Boston expected to be the aggressor and step up their physical play against the skilled and speedy Leafs, the advantage in special teams could be the difference in the series.
Advantage – Boston
The Leafs departed for Boston after practicing in Etobicoke, ON on Wednesday, but without goaltender Michael Hutchinson. The 29-year-old was called up last week to replace Garret Sparks as Frederik Andersen’s backup, but was excused by the club to be with his wife, who is expecting their first child.
“Obviously, being there for the birth of your child and supporting your wife is more important than hockey.” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said, “(Hutchinson) needs to look after the family part first. We know he's got people coming in to support and help out, but that's more important right now. He'll be available as soon as he can be.”
Garret Sparks traveled with the club and will backup Andersen if Hutchinson is unable to get to Boston in time for Game 1, but Babcock indicated that Sparks’ status as the third goalie will continue once Hutchinson is available.
The Convo preparing you for the playoffs:
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