They are up against a team that they have beaten just four times in regulation in their last 27 meetings, the kind of team-on-team dominance that is rarely witnessed in today’s parity-filled NHL.
But, even as the Toronto Maple Leafs deny that history with the Boston Bruins will mean much of anything come puck drop for Game 1 on Wednesday, they also acknowledge they’re not the favourites.
And that’s okay.
“I’m sure we are,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle quipped when asked about being an underdog, adding “every coach” uses those labels as motivating factors.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” general manager Dave Nonis said. “We’re playing against an exceptional hockey team that’s very well coached and very deep. It’s a good challenge and measuring stick for our group. That’s how we have to approach it.”
No team has had the Leafs’ number more over the last seven years than the Bruins, who have been one of the NHL’s top-10 teams in four of the past five years, and won the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Boston has a 9-1-0 record in their last 10 meetings, a 20-4-3 record in their last 27 and a 30-8-4 record in their last 43 games against Toronto – a stretch that goes all the way to the fall of 2006.
The beatdowns have been even more pronounced at the TD Garden, where the Leafs have won just twice in 13 games dating to November of 2008, and been outscored 59-27 in doing so.
Many of those matchups, however, were between two teams in opposite locations in the Eastern Conference standings, with the Leafs often struggling to win at the best of times, let alone against a Boston team that was a powerhouse for long stretches.
This season, the games have been much closer, with Toronto going 1-2-1 in four meetings and losing by more than a goal only once – when Tyler Seguin scored an empty netter in a 4-2 victory in early March.
That, more than anything, is why several Leafs players bristled at the suggestion Monday that some believe they don’t have a hope against a team with far-more experience and success in recent years.
“I’d say they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” Leafs youngster Nazem Kadri said. “Any fan who’s remotely educated knows that we have more than a chance. We’ve beaten these guys, and we’ve shown the capability to go up against teams like this. We’ve beaten the Pittsburghs and the best teams in the league, so why not do it for a full series?”
“They’ve had our number for sure, but the playoffs is a clean slate,” teammate Joffrey Lupul added. “That’s the beauty of the playoffs: You put the season behind you – or, in our case, the last couple years behind you – and win one playoff series and all of a sudden all is forgotten about.”
The most curious thing about the matchup – the first for the two Original Six franchises in 39 years – is neither team has played particularly well down the stretch.
Boston has won just two of its last nine games and finished the year a mediocre 9-10-3 after starting red hot (19-4-3), as a general team-wide malaise has taken over.
Toronto’s funk hasn’t been as pronounced in terms of its record, but even while winning games, the Leafs have hardly inspired confidence. Despite going 3-4-0, they were outshot an average of 35 to 21 in their final seven games as part of continuing struggles with their possession game.
While many in the hockey world have their money on the Bruins being better able to emerge out of their struggles due to their track record and depth, the Leafs will also be trying to take advantage of a team that has looked very ordinary.
“Playoffs are a different time – it’s a different animal,” Nonis said. “I think both teams are going to find their game.”
“This is a whole different season, a whole different Leafs organization – and I think Boston understands that, too,” Kadri added.