It is only fitting the Boston Bruins fell to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night, thereby ensuring the Beantowners will play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
After all, why should the Leafs give their fans the fun of a match against their oldest and fiercest rival, the Montreal Canadiens, considering the way they have been stumbling all over the place lately? Now, there is a double sense of foreboding for Leafs fans as opening night on Wednesday in Boston approaches.
Their team’s recent work, compounded by their historical helplessness against the Boston Bruins, does not offer much comfort for any postseason success. The Leafs have seemingly forgotten the skating, fore-checking game combined with a defensive tenacity that brought them back to respectability this season.
It was only a few weeks ago, as media and NHL types started discussing amongst themselves what to look for in the playoffs, that the Leafs along with the surprising New York Islanders were touted by some as teams capable of an upset or two.
In James Reimer, the Leafs had a goaltender who was playing well enough to keep carrying them in the playoffs and they had two and sometimes three lines doing the scoring.
But as the first playoff days in nine years rolled around for the Leafs this week, only Reimer can say he is still playing up to scratch. The rest of the bunch isn’t skating, checking or shooting.
Now they somehow have to rediscover their game against a team that has owned them for the last four seasons, or ever since the infamous Phil Kessel trade. In their last 37 games against Boston, the Bruins hold a 25-6-6 edge. If that’s not bad enough, consider this: In their last 13 games at the TD Garden, the Leafs have won exactly one game, as the Bruins hold a 10-1-2 record.
It is bad enough that the Leafs have to overcome their recent stretch of helplessness for the playoffs. Having to do it against a big, tough team that routinely makes patsies out of them is much, much worse.
Symbolically, what would go a long way to sparking a revival is if Kessel would finally have a big game in Boston. Ever since the trade in September, 2009, he gives off the air of a condemned man every time the Leafs go to the Garden. Then he practically disappears when they step on the ice, making Zdeno Chara’s checking assignment ridiculously easy.
There were at least a few signs of encouragement from the Leafs this season against the Bruins, despite their 1-2-1 record against them. They actually won a game and in their last appearance at the Garden managed to take a point in an overtime loss.
But there was nothing similar from Kessel. He failed to register a point in any of the four games, which is consistent with his performance against his former team, much to the delight of the Boston fans, who have not forgotten how much he wanted out of town.
It is time for Kessel, who is still one of the Leafs’ most dynamic players despite the Kryptonite-like effect the Bruins have on him, to shake the malaise. Nothing would spark this team more than seeing him finally have a big game in Boston.
For one thing, that just might go a long way toward ending a troubling statistical trend for the Leafs. If Kessel and company get their feet moving, they just might create some scoring chances, not to mention those shots on goal which have everyone’s knickers in a twist.
Elsewhere, the Canadiens may have dodged a meeting with the Leafs but drawing the Senators is no bonus prize. The Sens go into the postseason almost healthy, now that defenceman Erik Karlsson, who drives their offence, is back. Habs goaltender Carey Price had better make sure his recent slide is behind him or this will be over quickly.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, their hopes of pulling off an upset will run up against the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins, a coldly efficient machine now that Sidney Crosby is ready to come back and play with all those guys GM Ray Shero added by the NHL trade deadline.
The New York Rangers wound up with the match no one else wanted, drawing the Washington Capitals, who finished the season with an 8-1-1 sprint in their last 10 games with Alexander Ovechkin driving them forward. There won’t be many secrets in this series, as it’s the fourth time in five years these teams will meet in a playoff series. The Rangers won last year’s series in the seventh and deciding game but the Caps won the two previous series.