The NHL season has reached the midway point and on Saturday the Maple Leafs play their most intriguing game yet. There is little truly at stake but this trip to Boston could still foretell whether they are good enough to make a serious playoff run.
The Bruins have taken a sledgehammer to most opponents and are on a pace to finish with a league-record 136 points during the 2022-23 regular season. A loss to Seattle at TD Garden on Thursday was their first of the campaign at home in regulation time and first there since April 14, 2022. They are 32-5-4 and have yet to lose twice in a row.
Toronto is 26-10-7 and second in the Atlantic Division, nine points in arrears to Boston. It is already a wide enough gap to envision a first-round matchup with the solidly-in-third-place Tampa Bay Lightning. And while to win that is no sure thing – these are the Maple Leafs – they would almost certainly have to get past the Bruins to advance beyond one series.
Cue the soundtrack to The Omen.
More than anything, this is an opportunity for a team that has underachieved when it counts the most to assert itself. Toronto won the first of four meetings 2-1 on Nov. 5. A second victory could at least temporarily get the Bruins’ attention.
“It is a bigger game than the average regular-season game, but I don’t know if it is at the point where it dictates much of anything,” Jim Montgomery, the Boston coach, said Friday. “We are still not even at the all-star break but it is important for both teams.”
It is unclear if the Maple Leafs will have Auston Matthews in the lineup. The star centre has missed the past two games with an undisclosed injury and is also sick.
“I’m not quite sure [if he will play],” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said after Thursday’s 4-1 defeat in Detroit. “We’ll see where we are at on Saturday.”
Matt Murray, 11-4-2 with a .919 save percentage, will be in the visitors’ net. Linus Ullmark, already a shoo-in to win the Vezina Trophy, will be at the other end of the ice. His numbers: 22-2-1 and .938.
This will be the Maple Leafs’ third game in four days and sixth over the past nine. With the exception of the loss to the Red Wings, they have strung together three victories.
At this stage, any loss by the Bruins is news.
“It is not much of a race at this point,” Keefe said. “Unless I am mistaken,” (he’s not), “they are playing at the highest pace that the NHL has ever seen. We would like to make them have to maintain it or we will be right there.”
William Nylander leads Toronto with 22 goals followed by John Tavares and Matthews (20 each). David Pastrnak has 32 goals and trails only Connor McDavid (35.) Jake DeBrusk has 16, Patrice Bergeron has 15, Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall have 13 each, while David Krejci has 11 and Charlie Coyle 10.
“It is going to be a tough one but it is going to be a fun one,” Rasmus Sandin, the Maple Leafs young defenceman, said Thursday. “Those are the games you really enjoy playing. They have been rolling the whole season.”
Said Mark Giordano, the veteran blueliner: “They have been the class of the league for sure. It is going to be an exciting game to play in. We want to see where they are at and where we are at right now.
“If we want to have a chance to catch up with them we have to chip away and chip away the next bunch of weeks.”
The Maple Leafs need to enter the third period either ahead or tied. They have lost all nine games they trailed after 40 minutes.
“It’s going to be a huge battle for sure,” Nylander said.
Hall said the standings aren’t close right now but Boston will be motivated.
“We don’t want to be a team that loses two in a row,” he said. “We also know who is coming in tomorrow night and down the road what the meaning of the game might be. It is always exciting to play Toronto.”