They finished just five points apart in the standings and have plenty of lopsided history, but how do the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs really stack up beyond the superficialities?
Are the Bruins a heavy favourite, or are the Maple Leafs catching them at just the right time?
Here’s a closer look at both teams ahead of Game 1 Wednesday night in Boston:
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The Leafs emerged this season as one of the highest scoring teams in the league, with an abnormally high shooting percentage helping them generate slightly more than three goals per game.
Boston, however, uncharacteristically struggled to get the balanced scoring it has become known for the past five years, especially late in the year.
Overall, they posted remarkably similar goal totals at even strength (108 to 99) and the majority of the difference is a result of the Bruins inept power play.
While Toronto has better pure offensive weapons in Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri, the Bruins two-way stars like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand can consistently provide solid offence, elite defence and outscore whoever they’re put up against.
Add in trade deadline addition Jaromir Jagr – on the third line no less – and there’s still some punch there, too, especially compared to some very quiet Leafs like Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Frattin of late.
But many of Boston’s depth forwards have struggled, to the point that a previously useful foot soldier like Rich Peverley will likely begin the series as a healthy scratch.
(Don’t listen to any talk of a size advantage for the “big” bad Bruins either: As noted above, things are pretty even on that front these days.)
It’s also been a tough year for Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton on the second line, which is why this could be a very low scoring series all around.
Even so, they remain an experience and deep group, one that can probably flip the switch to start the playoffs and that gets the slight edge for having a more well-rounded game.
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Any conversation here has to begin with Zdeno Chara.
Even at the age of 36, the Bruins captain remains the engine that propels their defensive success and a huge reason why Boston was the second-best defensive team in the conference. For all the concerns over his mobility, he gets the job done remarkably well, using an amazing wingspan (including the league’s longest stick) and intimidation so well that he has limited Kessel to zero even strength goals in his 22 games against the Bruins.
(Boston outscores the opposition 2.90 to 2.02 for every 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play when Chara’s on the ice, far better than the 2.37 to 2.04 when he’s not.)
Beyond that, they lean heavily on Dennis Seidenberg (24 minutes a night), Johnny Boychuk (20.5) and Andrew Ference (19.5), but even with the addition of Wade Redden and Dougie Hamilton, the blueline isn’t as formidable as it’s been in the past.
What’s worth noting is that, aside from Chara, the size advantage also isn’t pronounced on the back end, with Toronto boasting so many big bodies with Mark Fraser and Ryan O’Byrne added to the mix.
That said, the Leafs back end will have to rely on Dion Phaneuf to play huge minutes, likely at least matching Chara in the 30-plus range throughout the series. He doesn’t have nearly the veteran backup that the Bruins do, either, as four of the Leafs top seven blueliners combine for one total game playoff experience and hasn’t fared well against the Bruins in general.
(Most of Phaneuf’s possession statistics when up against Boston’s best players, as per hockeyanalysis.com, are exceptionally poor.)
While Carl Gunnarsson serves as a capable No. 2 when healthy and Cody Franson has had a breakthrough year offensively, Toronto’s defence core has laboured of late, having difficulty breaking out of their zone and lacking the mobility to skate with the puck.
That plus the Chara factor swings the blueline in Boston’s favour.
Career save pct.
They’re two of the top young goalies in the game, with numbers that put them up in the top 10 in the league this season.
And if there’s any one position where the Leafs have a chance to surprise, as they have all year, it’s here.
Since coming into the NHL as an unheralded rookie two years ago, James Reimer has proven doubters wrong again and again, and this will easily be his biggest test of his young career.
Tuukka Rask, meanwhile, has been his dependable self in his first full season as the Bruins No. 1 and has solid support in rookie backup Anton Khudobin. Having Zdeno Chara patrolling the front of the crease for half the game doesn’t hurt, either.
Flip a coin, really.
How’s this for an alarming number?
The Bruins scored just 18 goals with the man advantage all season, good for dead last in the NHL and the main reason why so many of their offensive weapons posted disappointing totals.
Part of the problem is Boston simply didn’t draw a lot of penalties, as they went on the power play just 122 times (easily worst in the league) compared to 166 for Toronto.
That added up to the Bruins spending only 204 minutes up a man all year, making it more difficult to get into a rhythm.
While the Leafs are only a middling team on the power play, players like Kessel and Lupul have the ability to produce at key times and Phaneuf and Franson finished the year as two of the highest scoring blueliners in the league.
With little separating the two clubs while shorthanded (both were exceptional at better than 87 per cent) that may be where Toronto can claw back into some games.
But winning with special teams in the playoffs can be a dicey proposition given more of the games will be played at even strength.
Generally speaking, evaluating a coaching staff often comes down to the three Ps: player usage, penalty killing and possession.
While Randy Carlyle has earned deserved plaudits all year for reviving a Leafs franchise that finished fifth last a year ago, it’s the first and third area where Toronto has really taken a step back over the last 15 to 20 games of the season.
Carlyle has insisted on rarely using some of his better possession players (Jake Gardiner chief among them) while playing his brawny big men with regularity, a curious mix that has led to games being played more and more in Toronto’s zone.
Mikhail Grabovski, a Ron Wilson favourite who very well could have been the team MVP the past two seasons, has also become a lost cause, with at least some of that regression falling on the coaching staff.
Carlyle has downplayed his team’s shot differential issues much of the year, but it may become even more starkly evident in this series. Toronto generated roughly 20 per cent fewer shots and allowed 13 per cent more than the Bruins on the year, and the Leafs are one of the five most heavily outshot teams in the eight seasons since the 2004-05 lockout.
Their puck possession numbers (usually defined using a newer statistic known as Fenwick Close) are also the fifth worst of any team since 2007-08, the first season behindthenet.ca began recording the data.
Claude Julien may have a more talented two-way cast to work with, but system-wise the Bruins remain as hard to get off the puck as ever, something that Bergeron’s line in particular is world class at.
That ability to keep the play in the offensive end remains one of the main strengths of Julien’s often patient (some would say boring) style of play.
While there are troubling signs on both sides of late, the team with more experience, a better record and better underlying numbers is the most reasonable pick. If the Leafs continue to be outchanced to the degree they were down the stretch, they won’t have a hope other than if Reimer can substantially outplay Rask.
While funny things can happen in as small a sample size as a seven-game series, because of the controlled, defensive style the Bruins play and the fact even strength play will be of even more importance, this is one of the worst possible matchups for Toronto.
They’ll likely need a few of their very best games of the season to make it a long series.
Bruins in 5.Report Typo/Error