The Toronto Maple Leafs did not exactly fill their fans with confidence on the eve of their big rematch with the Boston Bruins.
Against the decidedly less formidable New Jersey Devils on Friday night, not even a faint facsimile of their former Stanley Cup-winning selves of a decade ago, the Leafs did not look like the team that gave the Bruins more trouble than any other team on the Bostonians' way to the Stanley Cup final last spring. They were all over the Devils in the first period, especially Leafs winger David Clarkson in his first game against his former team, but could not produce anything and then needed goaltender Jonathan Bernier to keep the game goal-free in the second so they could squeak out a 2-1 shootout win.
Some may argue that Leaf winger Phil Kessel's terrific solo rush at 8:12 of the third period that produced the first goal for the Leafs in 109 minutes, 34 seconds of hockey was a great omen for the Boston game. After all, after years of futility against his former team, the first-round series against the Bruins was Kessel's coming-out party as a star scorer.
But remember this: A few too many of the Leafs' goals are pretty ones like Kessel's, coming off the rush. The Bruins are a tough, unforgiving bunch defensively who smother such rushes and, for that matter, hardly any teams allow them in the playoffs, something the Leafs need to think about. And It was Kessel sitting in the penalty box seven minutes later when the Devils tied the score.
Once the Devils were out of the way, the Leafs were willing to talk about returning to the scene of what some of their fans consider a life-altering trauma. Call it whistling past the graveyard but no one would agree going back to the TD Garden and winning is to be some sort of catharsis.
"No, I just think we moved past that," was all Kessel offered.
Centre Nazem Kadri at least admitted the Leafs are "excited" about going back to Boston, where they let a 4-1 lead slip away in the third period of Game 7 of their first-round series against the Bruins. However, he, too, insisted "a lot of guys have forgotten about it," although he did admit there was some angst over the summer.
"It's a new year, two different teams, so realistically none of that stuff comes into play," Kadri said. "But we're excited to go back to Boston, we know it's going to be a challenge and we're excited about it.
"It was tougher before the season started and waiting all summer and just having to deal with it. But now that the season is started and we're 15, 16 games into it, I think a lot of guys have forgotten about it. But it's still in the back of your head."
Bernier, the new kid on the block, got the start against the Devils because James Reimer badly wanted the chance to have another go at the team that crushed him and the Leafs in that awful third period and overtime last May.
Reimer was not the only culprit in the game that saw the Leafs turn a three-goal, third-period lead into a 5-4 overtime loss. But he was the goaltender of record and he spent the summer reading about how many rebounds he gave up in that playoff series and how little confidence Leaf management supposedly had in him. After Leafs general manager David Nonis traded for Bernier, it must have been awfully hard for Reimer to brush away those reports about management's thinking.
Judging by Reimer's play so far this season, though, there is no reason to believe he can't go back to Boston and steal a win this time, although the Leafs' defensive play is such that Reimer has a difficult task ahead. A lot of people (ahem, cough, cough, even yours truly) said or wrote that Bernier, considered by many NHL scouts to be a star in the making, would have Reimer's job by the end of October.
That has not happened and it is simply because of Reimer's sheer determination. His success in goal comes more from his competitive nature rather than any technical brilliance, which might just be why Nonis and his fellow Leaf executives made the Bernier trade.
Reimer's trouble with rebounds and with locating the puck are well-chronicled. It seems he makes three saves where Bernier might make one simply because pucks tend to bounce into the slot when they hit Reimer. However, so far this season it's working. Reimer goes into Boston with a 4-1 record, 2.36 goals-against average and .942 save percentage.
Something else working in the Leafs' favour for this game is the relative positions of both teams. Back in the spring, the Leafs were the upstart bunch of kids featuring a former Bruin as their star who could not manage a decent game against his old team. But a lot of Leafs came into their own in that series along with Kessel. And going Saturday's game, the Leafs were three points ahead of the Bruins in the NHL's Atlantic Division with an 11-5 record despite their habit of letting teams outshoot them by wide margins.
The other thing to remember is that the Leafs are not necessarily a team scarred by the experience of letting a playoff series that looked in the bag get away in a relatively few minutes. If they were an older team expected to give the Bruins a fight, maybe. But few expected much more than a Bruins walkover.
The Leafs are young enough and loose enough that it's easy to believe them when they say they didn't spend the summer having nightmares about that Game 7 loss. Saturday night, we'll find out if they weren't fooling.
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