Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Jake DeBrusk of the Boston Bruins, left, battles for the puck against Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on March 4.Claus Andersen/Getty Images

It is put-up or shut-up time for the Maple Leafs. That certainly could have been said a year ago, or the year before that, but this is most likely the core of the team’s last chance to make a lengthy run during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

To do it, Auston Matthews will have to carry on as he did during a magnificent regular season. He concluded the preliminaries with 69 goals in 81 games in the most dominant performance by a shooter in the NHL in more than 30 years.

In contrast, Toronto’s star centre has 22 goals in 50 postseason games. That’s not chopped liver but probably not frequent enough for the Maple Leafs to hang around for too long this spring. The Bruins will make it difficult for him for sure when the first round kicks off on Saturday night at TD Garden.

That is in Boston – as in, the place where Toronto seasons go to die. The Maple Leafs last won a playoff series against the Bruins in 1959. This will be the fourth time the Original Six rivals have met in the opening round in 11 years. Not that it is a sore spot or anything but Boston won in seven games in 2013, 2018 and 2019.

It also won all four games between them during the regular season.

It is going to take a lot more to win than poking the bear and it is not all going to be laid at Matthews’s feet. Mitch Marner has 10 goals in 57 playoff games. William Nylander has 17 in 50. From all, more will be needed.

Toronto lost its final four games and played especially poorly in the last two in Sunrise, Fla., and Tampa. That is easy to dismiss because the team was focused on helping Matthews get to No. 70. Still, it wasn’t a good look. The Maple Leafs played loosey-goosey schoolyard hockey – which is not what they did for the most part as Matthews reached 69.

There was a point not so long ago that everything seemed to be coming together. Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, signed in the offseason, began to produce when paired on the line centred by Matthews. With top players reassigned to other lines, they all got stronger. But that flew out the window a bit lately and now the real games are about to begin.

Just a note: Tampa Bay didn’t alter the way it plays in Game 82 as Nikita Kucherov pursued his 100th assist. They just had him do what he does – which he does superbly – and he converted on the opportunity.

This is not to say that the Toronto has lost its way. But it has become distracted and taken a detour at an unfortuitous time.

The Bruins put together another fine season despite losing captain Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to retirement. But they enter the series struggling a bit as well. Boston lost three of its last four – including a stinker at home against Ottawa, which cost it the Atlantic Division title.

As dominant as they have been, the Bruins have won just two playoff series since losing in the 2019 Stanley Cup final. And they’ve got the boot in the first round in each of the past two years.

“We have to solve the puzzle before Game 1,” Jim Montgomery, the Boston coach, said after the loss to the Senators in the last game of the season. “That is all that matters now.”

The Maple Leafs are better on offence than their opponent, but Boston is stingy on defence and has superior netminding. If pitching wins in the MLB playoffs, goaltending usually does in the NHL.

Ilya Samsonov is Toronto’s starter and there is no way to predict how he will play. At times he has been great, at others lousy. The best that can be said is that he is erratic. He allowed 11 goals in his past two starts and four or more in five of the past nine. He went 23-7-8 overall but finished with an .890 save percentage.

The Bruins rotate goalies but it doesn’t seem to matter who they put in the crease. Jeremy Swayman is the No. 1 and he went 25-10-8 and had a .916 save percentage. He is 3-0 in three starts against the Maple Leafs this year with a 1.30 goals-against average and .959 on saves.

The backup – if he can be called that – is Linus Ullmark. He went 40-6-1 in 2022-23 and won the Vézina Trophy.

There are a lot of other tangibles. The Maple Leafs have struggled on the power play and the Bruins sport a top penalty-killing unit.

The intangibles? For Toronto, Boston has become Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Pops up every now and then and haunts everybody.

“This time of year is what it is all about,” said Mark Giordano, Toronto’s 40-year-old defenceman, who joined the team in 2022. “We are deep as I’ve seen our teams since I’ve been here. We have a lot of grit this year and different elements.

“We are going against a great team in Boston, but it seems like we run up against them, Florida or Tampa Bay every year. It’s pick your poison.”

To win, the Maple Leafs have to regain their focus. They can’t play pond hockey and survive. Matthews has to lead. Other have to elevate. Nylander had 40 goals and 98 points, but scored just once in the final dozen games.

“This is the important part of the season,” Matthews said. “This is where we want to have our success. We have to turn the page.

“Hockey is a different animal in postseason. Everything that happened before it gets washed away. It’s a completely new game and new season in itself.”

In their final meeting in the regular season, the teams combined for 91 hits, 50 penalty minutes and three fights. Afterward Toronto’s Matthew Knies said, “I hope we get another crack at those guys.”

Be careful what you wish for.

If Toronto can’t slay the beast this time, 69 goals will not amount to a hill of Boston beans.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe