BOSTON – It’s not too often where you look at a first-round series and conclude that the winner has a great shot at playing for the Stanley Cup.
You simply don’t see 105-point teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs go on the road to face a 112-point behemoth right out of the gate.
So as a brilliant springtime sun splashed across Boston’s crooked streets on Thursday morning, there was a surge of anticipation about the possibility baked into Bruins-Leafs.
Losing this series is going to be a devastating blow to one of these teams. They have each grown since first-round exits a year ago and yet one is destined to end up back where it started.
The possibility for disappointment has been a big discussion point among the Leafs dating back to last spring. Mike Babcock is mindful of not letting a team with leading scorers that are 20, 20 and 21 take anything for granted.
"I think we did a pretty good job of trying to — I know I had tried to say, ‘Listen, you don’t know what’s going to happen,"’ said former Leaf Brian Boyle of last year’s playoff experience. "We thought we were going to have 10 straight years of Cup finals in Tampa and we thought we were going to do the same thing in New York. Look at [the Rangers] now. It happens everywhere. Look at Chicago doesn’t make the playoffs this year.
"Yeah, they’ve got three Cups and I’m not taking anything away from that, it’s just they expect to be a contender every year. It’s tough."
The Bruins and Leafs are each built like contenders now.
Boston has the most dangerous line in the NHL — expect Auston Matthews to see a lot of the Brad Marchand–Patrice Bergeron–David Pastrnak trio in Game 1 — and elite special teams. It has strong puck-movers on the blue line, led by Charlie McAvoy, and a skilled young complement of secondary scorers.
The Leafs have a 30-goal man on each of their top three lines. They’ve developed a stout left side on the back end — with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner each delivering career-best seasons, not to mention the emergence of Travis Dermott — and saw some high-end goaltending over significant stretches from Frederik Andersen.
"They play very fast, a lot of skilled players, very high tempo and they never quit," said Marchand. "You watch the way they play all year, they battle [until the] last second and they’ve won a lot of games in the last minute, so they’re competitive and they don’t shy away from anything.
"They’re one of the toughest teams that I think we’ve played against all year and it will be a good battle."
The Leafs also converted on a ridiculous 32.2 per cent of power plays over the final 33 games of the season. With how few of those that tend to be given out in the playoffs, continued success could make a difference in a tight series.
Neither will have found many surprises in preparation. Toronto and Boston played each other four times this season and have been lined up to meet in the first round since early December.
Babcock acknowledged watching the Bruins on an off-night last month and turning the game off immediately after seeing them make "about 15 plays in two minutes on the power play."
He expects this to be a grinding best-of-seven, with swings of emotion. Very few teams have played better than these two over the last 10 weeks.
Toronto had the NHL’s third-best points percentage after Babcock made some dramatic lineup changes on Jan. 24 — leaving them slightly behind Nashville and Winnipeg, and just ahead of Boston.
These playoffs, naturally, begin with hope. And also with the thought that there’s no guarantee either the Bruins or Leafs will have this kind of chance at hand 12 months from now.
"Now, we’ve got some free agents this [summer] so are we going to be as good next year? I don’t know the answer to that," said Babcock. "The big thing about it is we don’t have to worry about next year. We’re playing right now.
"Let’s dig in and see what we can get done."