2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly celebrates a goal. (Nathan Denette/CP)

It went right down to the final minutes of the final game of 2017-18, but the Toronto Maple Leafs finally have their first-round opponent. Tampa Bay takes the Eastern crown and finishes as a higher seed than the Boston Bruins, but there’s a case to be made that the Bolts would’ve been the preferable matchup for Toronto.

Tampa’s style lines up well with the Leafs’—they’re both teams that rely on speed and dynamic offensive skill to pile up goals on their opponents. There’s a bit of run-and-gun in there, and Toronto can keep pace with that approach. The Bruins? They’re a different breed, and they have plenty more ways to frustrate a team like Toronto.

Boston can score with the best of them — it’s the sixth-highest scoring team in the league, in fact — but it can also be punishingly physical, defensively responsible, and has a crew of leaders with Stanley Cup rings on the shelf.

Nothing has been able to quell the Bruins up to this point. Injuries and suspensions couldn’t do it — the club just kept adding key pieces down the stretch, the latest being rookie sensation Ryan Donato, who put up a quick nine points through 12 late-season games to keep things rolling.

That said, there’s plenty to like about this Leafs team, particularly up front — a crew of young, elite game-changers backed up by reliable veteran talent. But it’s the blue line that could be a problem, and one the team on the other side won’t have, as Boston allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the league this season.

Toronto has a strong enough squad to give Boston some trouble — it did take three of four meetings with the Bruins this season — but with the club getting outshot in all but one of those meetings, the onus may be on netminder Frederik Andersen to steal a series.

ADVANCED STATS
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Toronto: 49.85 CF% (17th), 53.96 GF% (5th), .928 SP% (8th), 9.01 SH% (2nd), 101.77 PDO (2nd)

Boston: 53.66 CF% (2nd), 55.07 GF% (3rd), .925 SP% (12th), 7.89 SH% (12th), 100.38 PDO (13th)

POWER NUMBER
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

TEAM OFFENCE (rank) DEFENCE (rank) POWER NUMBER (rank)
Toronto 7.60 (5th) 5.80 (8th) 6.70 (5th)
Boston 6.96 (6th) 9.21 (1st) 8.08 (1st)

TEAM STATS
Toronto: 25.0 PP% (2nd), 81.4 PK% (10th), 270 GF (3rd), 230 GA (12th)

Boston: 23.5 PP% (4th), 83.7 PK% (3rd), 267 GF (6th), 211 GA (4th)

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD
Toronto: 3-1-0

Boston: 1-2-1

Toronto Maple Leafs Outlook: By wins and points, this is the most successful regular season team the Maple Leafs have iced in their long history. Unfortunately for them, they achieved it in an era with a playoff format that forces you to play out of your own division first, which means Toronto faces an even better team right out of the gate.

But if there is a team suited to pull off an early upset, it would be Toronto, which finished third in the Atlantic with the seventh-best record in the league. Only Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Winnipeg and Vegas scored more often than the Maple Leafs this season and though they allow a ton of shots on net, Frederik Andersen has emerged as one of the top netminders in the game today, acting as a great equalizer for a team that, while still getting a good amount of points from top blueliners Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, still has a need to improve its shot suppression.

The Leafs are fast, young and mostly healthy, which means they’re as prepared as they can be for a tough first-round matchup. Last year’s six-game opening round defeat as an eight seed against Washington gave this team a taste—now we’ll see if they’ve grown enough to take a bite out of the playoffs and knock off a top contender out of the gate.

Boston Bruins Outlook: This is the team that can play any style. Boston can play a physical game, a quick game, an offensive game or a defensive game. However you want to come at them, the Bruins have an answer. Boston has the sixth-most goals in the league, allowed the fourth-fewest, averaged the ninth-most shots, and gave up the second-fewest. Between Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, Boston has two players for whom you could build a Hart Trophy argument around.

One of the most amazing things about this team is how they’ve consistently been able to win despite key injuries. Bergeron, Torey Krug, David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk, Charles McAvoy, Zdeno Chara and trade deadline pickup Rick Nash have all been sidelined at various points, while Marchand has faced a couple suspensions—in the absence of each of these players, Boston didn’t miss a beat.

A total of 11 different rookies have suited up for the Bruins this season, with the underrated Danton Heinen leading them all in points, followed by DeBrusk and McAvoy, who was a likely Calder Trophy finalist before going down with injury. Had it not been for Gerard Gallant and the Vegas Golden Knights, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy would be taking home the Jack Adams Award this season for a job done incredibly well.

Maple Leafs X-Factor: Over the past two years, Nazem Kadri has emerged as a smart two-way player and quietly excellent goal scorer—the 63 he’s scored since October 2016 are the 17th-most in the NHL, ahead of players like Jamie Benn, Patrick Kane and Sean Monahan.

The playoffs are a different animal though. Kadri scored just once in six games versus the Capitals last spring and has two in 13 career post-season games. Auston Matthews will draw the toughest line matchups at least on the road in the playoffs, which leaves Kadri in a position to flourish and be an impact playoff performer for the first time. He and linemates Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau are coming into the playoffs on a high, too, as an extremely dangerous offensive line.

In general, goals and power play opportunities come down in the playoffs as well, so Kadri’s defensive abilities, which have improved in leaps and bounds under Mike Babcock, will also be put into the spotlight.

Bruins X-Factor: Though he’s their leading scorer, Marchand was mostly overshadowed by the two-way strength of Bergeron in any MVP talk. But when the assistant captain missed a month late in the season, Marchand posted 20 points in 12 games.

We know he can score and pester, but Marchand becomes a problem when he crosses a line. It’s tougher to get yourself suspended in the playoffs, but Marchand is always a candidate to take a dumb penalty at the wrong time. He’s an extremely talented and valuable player, but also a volatile one. While Boston wants him to bring that edge to his game, it’s a tight-rope walk to not cross the line and cost the team.

TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)

Toronto: Mitch Marner (22-47-69), Auston Matthews (33-28-61), William Nylander (20-40-60)

Boston: Brad Marchand (34-51-85), David Pastrnak (35-45-80), Patrice Bergeron (30-33-63)

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