The Bruins underachieved in the regular season and limped into the playoffs, so what’s their punishment? Perhaps the most ideal first-round matchup they could have asked for.
The fourth-seeded Bruins will square off against the fifth-seeded Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, and although the Maple Leafs were a bit of a surprise by being one of four Northeast Division teams to make the playoffs (that’s right -- the division that was expected to have one or two contenders is taking up half of the East’s playoff spots), Toronto is not as scary an opponent as teams like the Senators or Rangers. Plus the modern-day Leafs are new to this whole postseason thing. The last time they made the playoffs was in 2004.
Nevertheless, the Bruins have been so unstable that anything can happen. Should they still be considered a major player in the East? You bet. Would it be a surprise if they were bounced in the first round? You want to say no, and honestly, it would be pretty surprising if the Maple Leafs knocked them out. To the matchups.
The Maple Leafs score more and they’re faster. On the other hand, it’s tough to be sure after the regular season what the Bruins’ lines will look like.
The Patrice Bergeron line is the one trio with the least amount of questions. Bergeron, who should win his second Selke Trophy this year, brings the complete package. Brad Marchand led the Bruins with 18 goals and 36 points and is a strong two-way player. Tyler Seguin’s offensive talent is unquestioned.
From there, the Bruins have questions. David Krejci was remarkably consistent for the B’s this season before hitting a nine-game slump in which he produced just one point (an assist) in March. He led all playoff scorers with 23 points when the Bruins won the Cup, and the Bruins will need another big postseason out of him.
The question isn’t Krejci, though. It’s his line. Milan Lucic has produced duds in the last two postseasons, and he had a horrid regular season this year with just seven goals. Nathan Horton ran hot and cold as he tends to, but he hasn’t played since suffering an upper-body injury in a fight with Jarome Iginla on April 20. [UPDATE: Horton practiced Tuesday and expects to play Game 1 against the Leafs.]
Jaromir Jagr (nine points in 11 games) has been a splendid addition for the Bruins, so much so that you’d really think they’d be kind of screwed if they hadn’t added him prior to the trade deadline. This might be his last chance at winning another Stanley Cup. Carl Soderberg is still feeling his way around given that he’s played just six career NHL games, but he will likely be a healthy scratch if Horton’s healthy.
The Bruins know what they’re getting with both the Bergeron line and their fourth line of Gregory Campbell between Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton, but Horton’s status and a number of other things will factor into what the Krejci line and the third line will look like.
Toronto scored 3.02 goals per game in the regular season to Boston’s 2.65. The Maple Leafs boast two very strong lines capable of piling up the goals with Tyler Bozak between Kessel and James van Riemsdyk making up the top line and Nazem Kadri (18 goals, 26 assists for 44 points) centering Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin. JVR has been electrifying at times against the Bruins in the playoffs in the past with the Flyers, and Kessel had the most regular-season goals among players in this series with 20.
One fascinating thing to watch in this series is how Seguin and Kessel fare. Seguin has been a point-a-game player in 16 games against the Maple Leafs, scoring 10 goals and adding six assists while Kessel has three goals and six assists for nine points in 22 games against the B’s. It gets uglier for Kessel, as he’s been a minus-22 in his career against Boston while Seguin is a plus-8 against the Maple Leafs.
The Bruins are definitely deeper offensively than the Leafs on paper, but Toronto has gotten results where the B’s haven’t.
This is the area that has the biggest gap. Zdeno Chara hasn’t been at his absolute best, but even at 70 percent he is significantly better than anything Toronto is trotting out there.
Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf make up Toronto’s top defensive pairing, with Phaneuf leading the team with an average of 25:11 of ice time per night. The Toronto captain was terrible in the Bruins’ 4-3 win over the Leafs at the Garden, posting a minus-3 rating, though it was his only negative rating in five meetings against them this season.
After the Chara-Seidenberg pairing for the Bruins, nothing is set in stone. One could expect Claude Julien to stick with Andrew Ference paired with Johnny Boychuk, while Wade Redden would skate with Adam McQuaid. It seems likely that Dougie Hamilton will at least begin the playoffs as a healthy scratch.
The Bruins’ objective will be pretty simple from a defensive standpoint: wear Toronto’s speedy guys down. They’ve done it with success in the past.
Wednesday will mark the first time Tuukka Rask has stood between the pipes in the postseason since allowing four goals in Game 7 against the Flyers in an unforgettable collapse that followed the Bruins taking the first three games of the series.
Rask should be hungry to prove himself in the playoffs, just as he had been hungry to prove himself as a No. 1 goalie this season. Can Rask access the level of play that Tim Thomas turned in two years ago to lead the B’s to the Stanley Cup? Don’t bank on it, but Rask has been solid enough this season (2.00 goals-against average, .929 save percentage, five shutouts) for Boston to not have to worry about their netminding situation.
James Reimer has over 30 pounds on Rask, as he stands at the same height as the B’s netminder (6-foot-2) but weighs in at a robust 208 pounds to Rask’s wiry 171. He missed some time with a strained MCL in February, but he’s healthy now and started 17 of Toronto’s final 19 games. The 25-year-old’s numbers on the season were so-so, as his 2.46 goals-against average wasn’t anything to write home about but his .924 save percentage was fourth in the Eastern Conference and eighth in the NHL. Translation: He faced a ton of shots and, being human, could only stop so many of them.
Reimer’s playoff experience is very limited, as he only played in the postseason once during his three years of junior hockey (seven games in 2007 for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL), and his only professional playoff experience came in the form of eight games for the for the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL in 2009.
Don’t sleep on the Toronto goalie. Reimer’s a lot more proven than Braden Holtby was last year when Holtby and the Capitals upset Boston in the first round.
The Bruins had the No. 1 penalty kill in the NHL for a time, but finished fourth in the league with an 87.1 percentage. Among the teams finishing ahead of them were the Maple Leafs, whose 87.9 clip on the PK was second in the NHL.
Toronto was 14th in the league on the power play with an 18.7 success rate, while the Bruins’ 14.8 efficiency was worst among playoff teams and 26th in the league. The B’s finished the regular season with one power play goal over their last five games, converting on just one of 10 power plays.
Head-to-head this season, the numbers suggested that both teams have better penalty kills than power plays. The Bruins went 0-for-7 against the Maple Leafs the man advantage, while the Maple Leafs went 1-for-11 against the B’s.
In short, both teams kill penalties well, but only one can score on the power play. That team is not the Bruins.
EDGE: Maple Leafs
Yes, the Bruins have stunk and yes, these aren’t your slightly older brother’s Maple Leafs, but at the end of the day it's hard to look at this matchup and see anything but the best-case first-round scenario for Boston.
The Bruins don’t score, but they will against a Maple Leafs team that allows a lot of goals. Furthermore, the B’s defense will have an easier time stopping Toronto’s offense than Toronto will stopping Boston’s offense.
For how underwhelming the Bruins have played, they deserve to be candidates for a first-round upset, and if they were playing a team they couldn’t wear down so easily, perhaps they would be. Yet this is a really good matchup for them, and one that they might be able to come away with playing more confident hockey. It’s not like the Maple Leafs are playing great either – the Bruins have been at their worst over the last two months by going 15-12-4, but Toronto was 13-8-5.
In the end, a prediction is what one thinks is going to happen, not what a team deserves for turning in a weak two months. As bad as the Bruins have been, it’s hard to think this series won’t be relatively easy for them.
PREDICTION: Bruins in five