It has been nearly six months and yet the disappointment of playoff elimination haunts this city.
Toronto cashed out of the postseason early for a third year in a row, and for the second successive time it was Boston, those darn Bruins, that delivered the blow.
It is a long time between now and April when Stanley Cup proceedings commence, but the rivalry between these opponents seemingly drawn to one another renews on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The outcome of a game itself in mid-October is relatively insignificant – but will bring relief, and a little measure of pleasure, to the Maple Leafs if they win: “See, they aren’t so tough! This is a whole new year.”
Nobody will say it, of course, because that would be interesting. No use in giving Boston incentive. As though any is needed.
The Bruins are gifted when it comes to making Torontonians miserable. Think not about those Game 7 losses in the first round in each of the past two years. For true torment, go back to the Maple Leafs’ epic collapse in Game 7 on May 13, 2013. That night the Bruins scored twice in the final 82 seconds to force a tie, and then won in extra time. It was the first time an NHL team had won a seventh game after trailing by three goals in the third period.
Had the Maple Leafs won then, or in either of the past two series between them, it would have been their first victory over the Bruins in the playoffs since 1959. That was so long ago that not even Zdeno Chara was playing. A trend, perhaps.
A victory is important for Toronto, but not just to end its own little curse. The Maple Leafs enter the game 4-3-1 following a loss to the Capitals in Washington on Wednesday. They have yet to beat a good team. Laying one on the Bruins would go a long way toward boosting the confidence in the home team’s dressing room.
Saying, “We believe in this group and know we can beat anyone” rings hollow until it is done. It has been repeated a few times already this year, and we aren’t 10 games in yet.
At 5-1-1, Boston is off to a strong start. The Bruins play with grit and get great goaltending from their tandem keeper. They have the game’s foremost irritant in Brad Marchand – he is probably practising his slashes right now – and an extraordinary centre in Patrice Bergeron.
They pretty much have it all, which is why they bumped off Toronto en route to reaching the Stanley Cup final last year, and rank among this season’s favourites.
The Maple Leafs see themselves as a contender and time will tell. They are exciting and score a lot of goals – but give up too many as well.
Their task just got more difficult thanks to a broken finger on John Tavares’s left hand. He was struck late in Wednesday’s game by a teammate’s shot, and will be out for at least two weeks.
“As soon as I got hit by the puck, my finger went numb,” Tavares said after sitting out practice on Friday. “I went back to the bench and it didn’t feel very good.”
Tavares said he did not believe the injury was serious when he woke up on Thursday morning. He was surprised by the prognosis and a possible lengthy recovery.
“I am frustrated,” Tavares said. “I did not want to miss any time. I was really hopeful it was something I could play with. It is very, very stiff.”
The injury prompted Babcock to insert Alexander Kerfoot into Tavares’s spot on the second line with Mitch Marner and Ilya Mikheyev. On Friday, he also promoted Jason Spezza to third-line centre playing between Kasperi Kapanen and Trevor Moore. The top line remains Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson.
Babcock sees Saturday night’s game as a huge opportunity for his team.
“A lot of guys probably wanted more ice time and now they are going to get it,” he said. “ As a team we have to get better. I think we are better than we have played.”
Not only do the Leafs play Boston at home on Saturday, but again at TD Garden on Tuesday. That gives them two chances to serve notice that this year could be different.
“This will be fun,” Babcock said. “Obviously, we have a history with them.”
It is not a very good one, though.