The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins face off tonight in the only Game 7 showdown of the opening round. It’s been a roller-coaster series, one that started with a pair of blowouts and then transformed into a nail-biter, with a key suspension, a surprise injury and more than a few subplots along the way.
Now it comes down to one game, and you’re looking for a prediction. Well, we’ve got you covered. Here goes: One of these teams will win.
Oh, you were looking for something more specific. But here’s the thing: In the salary cap era NHL, any one game is pretty much a coin flip. A slightly weighted coin, maybe, but still a coin flip. Either one of these teams could win, by a lot or a little, and it wouldn’t come as much of a shock.
But that’s not what fans of either team are looking for, so here’s a compromise. Today, we’ll look at five reasons why Bruins are definitely going to win tonight. And we’ll also offer up five more reasons why the Maple Leafs are an absolute lock. Pick the ones you like best, and then ignore the others. Or even better, wait until the game is over and then come back and only read the ones from the winning team.
Either way, we’re guaranteed to be right. And also wrong. But mostly right.
The Bruins will win because: They’ve been the better team in the series
We’ll start with the simplest factor: Through six games, the Bruins have been the better team.
Not from start to finish, and not necessarily for every game. But overall, it’s fairly clear that the Bruins are outplaying the Maple Leafs. Pick any measure, from goals scored to shots to possession to expected goals, and the Bruins have the edge. It’s not always a big edge, and the Maple Leafs have certainly had their moments. But on balance, the Bruins have been better.
That may not mean much in a seventh game. Hockey isn’t fair, and we’ve seen plenty of series where the best team didn’t win, often in cases where the margin was much bigger than in this one. But if you’re trying to figure out who’s going to win a single game, the easiest question to ask is “Who’s been better so far?”
In this series, the answer is Boston.
The Maple Leafs will win because: They’re getting stronger as they go
The Bruins have been the better team in the series, sure. But that includes the first two games, which Boston dominated. Since then, things have been far more even. Granted, those first two wins count just as much as any others, but the trend in the series is clear – Toronto’s been getting better, while Boston peaked early.
That’s not to say that the scales have tipped in Toronto’s favour, because they haven’t – even in losing the last two, the Bruins controlled play for long stretches, and there hasn’t been a single game in this series where you could say the Leafs were clearly the better team. But they’re headed in the right direction, and the third period of Monday’s Game 6 was probably their best of the series so far.
Momentum is overrated in pro sports, and it would take one early Bruins goal to put the Leafs right back on their heels. But if you’re trying to predict what will happen tonight, a pair of blowouts from almost two weeks ago doesn’t tell you all that much. You want to let some recency bias creep in, and the gap between these two teams has been getting smaller as we go. If the trend continues, tonight might be the night that the pendulum finally swings over to the Leafs’ side.
The Bruins will win because: They’re at home
You play all season to earn home ice in a Game 7, and the Bruins have it. Historically, that tends to matter, with home teams holding a 99-70 edge in Game 7s, and you know The Garden will be loud tonight.
But more importantly, home ice means the Bruins get last change, which means they can dictate the matchups. That’s big for any team, but especially one like the Bruins that loads up its top line. The unit of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak toyed with the Maple Leafs in the first two games in Boston to a record-breaking extent, and Toronto’s attempts to counter them on the fly didn’t yield much beyond a pair of too-many-men penalties.
The Leafs have had more luck as the series has gone on, especially once Nazem Kadri returned to the lineup, and have even managed the rare feat of scoring a few goals against the Bergeron line at 5-on-5. But with the season on the line, Bruce Cassidy will be able to ensure that his shutdown pair of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy sees as much of Auston Matthews as it can. And he’ll be able to get the best line in hockey on the ice at the moments when it’ll have the best chance to decide the game.
The Maple Leafs will win because: Bergeron hasn’t been the same lately
It’s not breaking news to suggest that Bergeron is hurt – he missed Game 4, so we know something’s wrong. Given what this guy has played through in the past, you can only imagine what it must take for him to actually miss a game.
But while we may not know exactly what he’s dealing with, it’s clearly having an impact. After combining for 20 points in those first two games, the Bergeron line has been held pointless in all three games they’ve been together since. That’s a stunning turnaround, and if it continues then the Leafs probably win the series. David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk have had their moments, but with deadline pickup Rick Nash struggling the Bruins can’t match the Leafs’ middle-six depth. They need the Bergeron line to create offence, and for the last three games it hasn’t been.
That’s not to say the unit has been shut down – Pastrnak had 10 shots on goal in Game 5, and Marchand had six on Monday, and there have been more than a few posts and near misses. So maybe it’s just a matter of time before the line explodes again, and the Leafs are left looking as overmatched as they were in the first two games. But it’s at least possible that Bergeron’s injury, whatever it is and whenever it happened, changed the entire dynamic of the series. If so, that’s bad news for Boston.
The Bruins will win because: They’ve been here before
Boston’s roster includes a few younger players who’ll be seeing their first Game 7, including key pieces like Pastrnak and McAvoy. But it’s also got plenty of veterans who’ve been down this road before with other teams, including guys like Nash and David Backes. And of course, the veteran core includes players like Bergeron, Chara and Marchand who’ve played a ton of Game 7s, including three wins during the 2011 Cup run.
The Leafs have some veterans of their own, including Patrick Marleau and Tomas Plekanec, and Frederik Andersen does have a Game 7 under his belt (although he lost that one). But for many of the key players, including Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, this will be uncharted territory.
There’s something to be said for knowing what to expect when the big moment arrives. The Bruins do.
The Maple Leafs will win because: Experience is overrated
Yes, it’s nice to have been there before, but let’s not get carried away. It’s not like the young Maple Leafs are going to hit the ice for Game 7 and be completely confused by what’s going on. Hockey is hockey.
And besides, maybe there’s something to be said for being young and inexperienced enough that you don’t know what you don’t know. Let the veterans get themselves all tied up in knots over the soul-crushing importance of it all. Let the kids go out there and just play.
Besides, while the Toronto core is relatively young, some of them have played in a Game 7 before. In fact, it was even right here in Boston. Which, come to think of it, may not be a good thing…
The Bruins will win because: It was 4-1
Leafs fans can roll their eyes if they want, and it’s true that this is the time of year when we typically pay far too much attention to the tired narratives of the past. But the baggage from 2013 isn’t entirely a media-created storyline. Leafs players were bringing it up on their own, especially after the frantic finish to Game 5.
Under ordinary circumstances, a favourite like Boston letting an opponent up off the mat after having them down 3-1 in a series could plant some seeds of doubt in a team. But any sort of psychological edge the Leafs might have gets blunted by the fact that we’ve been here before, and it didn’t end well. Let’s say the Leafs jump out to a lead tonight. Does that take the Boston crowd out of it, or put a dent in the morale on the Bruins bench? Typically, it might. But thanks to 2013, it won’t feel that way. And if the Bruins get a goal to launch a comeback, everyone will be thinking the same thing – including the players on both sides.
That’s a double-edged sword for the Maple Leafs, since this game also represents an opportunity to put those old ghosts to rest. And in the big picture, none of this should be a major factor. But in what should be a tight game, every little bit helps. Even history.
The Maple Leafs will win because: Andersen has found his game
Andersen was Toronto’s regular season MVP, starting 66 games and leading the league in saves while establishing a new team record for wins. He was at his best from November through February, stealing games and working himself into the periphery of the Vezina conversation.
But like most goalies, Andersen goes through cold stretches in which he looks very ordinary. He’s started slow in each of his two seasons in Toronto, and this year he finished that way too. Then he was shelled in the first two games in Boston, leading to some concern that the Maple Leafs may have worn him out with a conference-high 66 starts.
But since then, Andersen has looked more like his midseason self. He made 40 saves in a Game 3 win, 42 more in Game 5 in Boston, and allowed just one goal on 33 shots on Monday in a performance that had his teammates singing his praises. Goaltending is crucial for every team, but especially for a young Maple Leafs squad that likes to stretch the ice. If Andersen is playing well, that frees up the Leafs to be more confident on the attack, which is where they’re most dangerous.
Early on, Andersen was awful. But now that he’s back, the Maple Leafs have a goaltending edge in the series, and that usually translates into victory.
The Bruins will win because: Wait, are we sure Andersen is playing well?
There isn’t a more tired cliché in hockey than condescendingly telling a fan to “watch the games”. But sometimes, the numbers really do tell a different story than what your eyes suggest, and Andersen’s recent play might fall into that category. His .936 save percentage over the last four games looks fantastic. And if you just get caught up with the highlights, you see him pulling off Hasek-ish miracles like this robbery on Pastrnak in Game 3.
But then you watch the games, and… well, something still seems off. Andersen has occasionally seemed to be fighting the puck, struggling with rebounds and seeing shots pop out of his glove hand on more than a few occasions. He lost track of the puck behind the net multiple times in Boston on Saturday, and one of the first key moments of Game 6 was Marchand beating him through a gaping five-hole only to see the puck trickle just wide.
Every hot goalie gets a few breaks along the way, and it goes without saying that Leafs fans are well into “Don’t ask how, just ask how many” mode right now. If Andersen can make 40 saves in another win tonight, nobody will care if every one of them hits him right between the eyes while he’s trying to tighten his skate laces. There are no artistic impression scores in the playoffs, and if you’re a Leafs fan who isn’t remotely worried about Andersen these days, well, you’re not alone.
But there are times when you watch a goaltender and think: “This guy is dialed in, they’re not getting anything past him tonight”. Andersen isn’t giving that vibe these days, even if the numbers suggest otherwise, and especially optimistic Bruins fans might be feeling like it’s only a matter of time.
The Maple Leafs will win because: Their best players haven’t been their best players… yet
We know what happens if the Bruins stars are at their best, because we saw it early in the series. If anything like the first two games plays out again tonight, the Bruins win. But the way the series has gone suggests that it won’t – guys are either hurt or slumping or maybe just squeezing their sticks a little too tight, and it feels like Boston’s best games have already come and gone.
Not so for the Leafs. Even putting aside the debate over Andersen, Toronto hasn’t seen much from Matthews or Nylander yet, at least not anything that approaches the sort of dominance that both players are capable of. James van Riemsdyk has been invisible for long stretches after being red hot down the stretch. Kadri is still settling back into the series. And you’d think that Kasperi Kapanen has to convert on a breakaway someday.
In fact, you could make a strong case that of all the Leafs’ key players, only Marner is meeting or exceeding expectations. And yet, despite all that, they’re still one game away from winning the series. So what happens if one of the stars finally breaks through tonight? What if several do?
There’s no guarantee it happens, of course. But as the Maple Leafs have shown over the last few games, they have enough depth to beat the Bruins even when they don’t get a breakout game from a star. From a Toronto perspective, good enough might still be good enough. But they have plenty of guys who are capable of greatness and haven’t shown it yet. If we finally see it tonight, that should be enough for Toronto to finish the comeback, bury a few ghosts, and punch their ticket for Tampa.