Trust me, I’ve been looking high and low for a bone of hope to toss to Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
After all, it’s been nine years since their heroes graced the NHL playoff stage. Nine years of Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, Jason Allison, Pavel Kubina and Jeff Finger. These long-suffering fans need even a kernel of optimism their Leafs can somehow knock off the Boston Bruins when the first round of the playoffs opens Wednesday at TD Garden.
It can’t be found in the recent record between these teams. I won’t repeat the Bruins’ record in their last 37 meetings, or roughly the period after the Phil Kessel trade in September of 2009, because they were already lashed with it in my previous two missives. Let’s just say the Bruins really, really like to play the Leafs, especially in their own building.
Let’s also gloss over Kessel’s, ah, modest record against his former team. That, too, was well hashed-over this week. Suffice to say, Kessel likes to play the Bruins as much as former Leafs general manager Brian Burke likes Internet trolls.
Then, there’s the other playoff standby, the individual matchups. Well, discussing them is as much fun as asking Burke if he has any regrets about the Kessel trade.
The best we can do is Leafs goaltender James Reimer against his Boston counterpart, Tuukka Rask. You may remember Rask: He was the first-round draft pick former Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. traded some years back for Raycroft. But more on that later.
If you can overlook the Bruins’ 3-1 record against the Leafs this season, there is a modicum of comfort to be taken in their record against the rest of the NHL. In fact, they were even worse than the Leafs in the last few weeks of the regular season.
While the Leafs were stumbling a bit and making their fans nervous, the Bruins made theirs forget all about that 17-3-3 start that had the pundits looking for a great Eastern Conference playoff showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In their last 10 games, the Bruins won just three times.
Even better for the Leafs, ace defenceman Zdeno Chara, who is personally responsible for Kessel’s futility, played more like Zeppo Marx in those final days.
But that’s where the hope ends. Man-for-man and unit-for-unit, the Leafs simply do not match up well against the Bruins.
The best is Reimer, whose 19-8-5 record, 2.46 goals-against average and .924 save percentage are almost as good as Rask’s numbers (19-10-5, 2.00, .932). Reimer has no NHL playoff experience and Rask’s last playoff appearance was in 2010, as Tim Thomas played every game in 2011, when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.
Kessel’s 52 points as the Leafs’ leading offensive player looks a lot better than the 36 points Brad Marchand had to top the Bruins list. But the Bruins can score by committee, something the Leafs only do intermittently.
Down the middle, the most important forward position, the Bruins have an enormous edge. In Patrice Bergeron, they have possibly the best two-way centre in the NHL. He is an excellent faceoff man and the Leafs’ best faceoff centre, Tyler Bozak, announced Tuesday he will come back from a suspected shoulder injury to play in game 1, but will not be able to take faceoffs. Terrific.
The Leafs became a playoff team by knocking the opposition around. But the Bruins are just as tough with the likes of Chara and forwards Milan Lucic and Marchand, and the latter two are much more skilled than the Leafs’ bruisers.
Special teams provide the only saw-off. Both have modest power plays and both are excellent at killing penalties. Which means this should be one of the few NHL playoff series where special teams are not the crucial difference.
This means the best 5-on-5 team should prevail, which puts the ball back in the courts of Reimer and Rask.
If the Leafs are to knock off the Bruins, then, it will be up to Reimer, just as their success has been all season.