It took all 82 games, but the Maple Leafs finally know who they will meet to begin the Stanley Cup playoffs.
William Nylander scored twice and Ilya Mikheyev, Nicholas Abruzzese and Pierre Engvall had one goal apiece as Toronto defeated Boston, 5-2, in the final game of the regular season on Friday at Scotiabank Arena.
The victory set up a first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The best-of-seven series will begin on Monday with Toronto holding the home-ice advantage.
The Lightning has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Maple Leafs last one won in 1967 and haven’t won a postseason series since 2004.
“It’s a great challenge,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I look at our guys and I think the harder the opponent, the better. That’s what we need.”
The Maple Leafs ended the regular season with 54 wins and 115 points – both franchise records. Tampa Bay, which also won on Friday, went 51-23-8.
With the playoffs only days away, both Toronto and Boston rested key players. The Maple Leafs gave Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Jack Campbell the night off, while the Bruins did the same to Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak. Boston plays Carolina in the first round.
“Our main objective was to make it the through the night healthy, and I believe we did,” Keefe said. “Now 82 games are in the books, and we play for real.”
The lineups both teams fielded looked more like an exhibition game on Sept. 29 rather than one on April 29.
“A game like this can be difficult to play in,” Jason Spezza, the Maple Leafs’ veteran centre, said. “There is a different feel.”
Boston went ahead 1-0 only 1 minute 10 seconds after the opening puck was dropped on a goal by Trent Frederic.
Mikeheyev then deflected in a shot by Mark Giordano on a power play to even the score at 1-1 with 16:09 left in the first period. It was the fleet Russian’s 21st goal, a career high.
Nylander scored on a breakaway with 6:44 remaining in the first, and Abruzzese netted one only eight seconds before the first intermission to give Toronto a 3-1 lead.
It was the first goal and point of Abruzzese’s career and came in his ninth NHL game. The 22-year-old joined the team late in the season after completing his second year at Harvard.
“I was really excited,” Abruzzese said. “I had been getting some crap from the guys about not scoring.”
The teams were scoreless in the second period before Nylander and Engvall struck for Toronto over the final 20 minutes. In between their goals, Jake DeBrusk had one for Boston.
Nylander finished the regular season with a career-best 34 goals, joining Matthews and Marner in having the best year of their careers.
Now attention turns to the playoffs, which have not been kind to the Maple Leafs. They have lost in the first round in four of the last five years and lost in the Stanley Cup play-in tournament in the other.
“We know that we are going to be judged by what we do in the playoffs,” Spezza said.
A year ago, Toronto took a 3-1 series lead before losing three straight to the Montreal Canadiens.
“We talked about it right after the game and in the off-season, but we want to move on,” Morgan Rielly, the Maple Leafs’ defenceman, said. “Hopefully, we can look back and say that was a turning point for us, but until that happens, you kind of want to block that out.”
Winning a first-round series will offer redemption to all of Toronto’s players but is more important to a few than it is to others.
Spezza, Wayne Simmonds and Giordano have each played more than 1,000 games in the NHL, but have yet to win a Stanley Cup.
“It is very important for me,” Spezza, 38, said. “I’ve played a long time and Father Time is catching up with me.”
Simmonds, 33, feels much the same way.
“When you get to this point, you don’t know how much longer you have so you want to lay it all out on the line,” he said. “You don’t know if you are ever going to get another opportunity.
“Moments like this don’t come all the time. You are cognizant of that. It is a lot of motivation.”
The team was to enjoy a day off on Saturday with preparations starting on Sunday for the series against Tampa Bay.
“They understand how to play in a series and we are trying to figure it out,” Rielly said. “But it is a great time to be playing hockey and we look forward to the challenge ahead.”