Johnston on Leafs: Into the belly of the beast

Boston Bruins' Tyler Seguin scores on Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer during a shootout in a 3-2 Boston win on March 25, 2013. (AP/Winslow Townson)
April 29, 2013, 8:52 AM

It is back now into the belly of the beast for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There is really no better way to describe the first-round playoff series with the Boston Bruins that begins Wednesday night at TD Garden.

To say that Boston has been an unpleasant place to play in recent years is an understatement. The Leafs have managed just three victories in their last 15 trips to the city — while suffering seven losses by three goals or more — and that only tells part of the story about just how tough the challenge standing in front of them is.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine one team having more of a psychological edge over an opponent heading into a playoff series.

In the last five years alone, Boston has had both a seven-game win streak over Toronto and a separate eight-gamer that ended March 23 with a 3-2 Leafs victory at Air Canada Centre. Two nights later at the Garden, Toronto lost to the Bruins in a shootout — earning them three of four points from the back-to-back along with some reason to believe that the gap between the teams is closing.

“That helped,” Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur said over the weekend. “We’ve got a lot more to give than we did in those games, too. I think we can go to another level and we’re going to have to to win in the playoffs.”

Neither team enters the post-season in its best form.

The Bruins looked like a lock to win another Northeast Division title until finishing 2-5-2 down the stretch, including Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators in a game that had been rescheduled because of the attacks on the Boston Marathon.

That allowed Montreal to snatch the division crown and set up the first Leafs-Bruins series since 1974, when a team led by Bobby Orr swept Toronto on the way to an appearance in the Stanley Cup final.

Despite Boston’s recent run of success against the Leafs — or perhaps because of it — Claude Julien has only spoken in glowing terms about the team’s Original Six foe this season.

It was just six weeks ago that the Bruins coach referred to the Leafs as “legit contenders” and he sang their praises again on Sunday night after the playoff matchup had been solidified.

“They’re a team that earned a spot in the playoffs because they play a real tough type of game and they grind it out,” Julien told reporters in Boston. “They’ve got toughness, they’ve got skill, they’ve got speed. They’ve got a mixture of everything, it’s a team that’s well-coached.

“Our games against them have been close this year — it’s going to be an interesting series.”

It shouldn’t take long for some bad blood to get boiling.

Both teams take pride in playing a tough, physical brand of hockey and each showed a willingness to fight during the regular season. Toronto led the NHL with 44 fighting majors while Boston tied for fourth at 31.

You can bet that both teams will make a point of answering every physical challenge. Emotions should be running high on the ice and off it.

“It’s two of the biggest hockey markets going at it,” Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. “Maybe (it’s) not as classic a rivalry as a Montreal-Boston or Toronto-Montreal, I guess, but I think whenever you have two Original Six teams going at it and they haven’t been at it for a while (it’s special).

“I know they’re going to be pretty jacked up, up there.”

The storylines are almost endless.

Bruins starting goalie Tuukka Rask was originally drafted by the Leafs but was dealt away as a prospect. He and Toronto counterpart James Reimer were among the league’s top goalies this season.

Boston selected Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton with draft picks acquired from the Leafs while Toronto is currently carrying Joe Colborne, a former Bruins first-rounder.

And, of course, it is impossible not to mention Phil Kessel. The Leafs sniper only has three goals in 22 career games against his former team — none of them at even strength — and that clearly won’t do at the biggest time of year.

It should all contribute to plenty of white noise, although for his part Seguin says “I won’t be listening.”

“Just my mom will,” he added.

Given the struggles over the last few years, belief could be tough for the Toronto players to come by. It will take some real resilience to make a series of it if they fail to steal one of the opening two games on the road.

Carlyle has done an excellent job of pushing the team to new heights this year, but even he admitted to being “mystified” by a poor performance in the regular season finale against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.

The Leafs are currently a struggling squad.

As the players regroup and prepare for the franchise’s first playoff game in nine years, perhaps it will be helpful to reflect back on the March 23 victory over Boston. There was a tangible sense of relief that night in the Toronto dressing room.

“Now we know we can beat them,” Leafs goalie James Reimer said then. “We were confident before, but now we can definitely see it on the scoreboard.”

Yes, but can they do it four times in the next two weeks?

That is an awfully tough task, indeed.

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