A year ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs took a huge step forward in their rebuilding process by returning to the playoffs for just the second time in the salary cap era. The Leafs held their own by taking the Presidents’ Trophy winner to six games, but were ultimately ousted in the first round.
This season they set a franchise record in wins and qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 seasons. Unlike last year, however, the Leafs will not settle for simply making the postseason — they are hungry to prove themselves.
Standing in their way are the Boston Bruins, a team that has been annihilating its competition over the past five months. The Bruins can score at will, defend with ease, and their special teams are phenomenal.
Given that these teams played a tight season series and are evenly matched on paper, the series has all the makings to be one for the ages. Let’s see how these teams stack up.
Boston: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak have been one of the best lines in the NHL all season. This is in big part due to the development of Marchand, who has become one of the best all-around forwards in the league. David Krecji can still produce at a high level, and the Bruins have an influx of young talent that has energized their roster. If Rick Nash is ready to go for the playoffs, this group of forwards gets even better.
Toronto: The Maple Leafs finished as the third-highest scoring team in the league (keep in mind that they were without their best player, Auston Matthews, for 20 games this season). When healthy, Matthews was a monster on the ice, scoring 34 goals in 62 games. Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk both eclipsed the 30-goal mark as well, while Patrick Marleau added 27 scores of his own. Perhaps even more impressive is the amount of young talent that has produced at a high level all season for the Leafs.
Advantage: Toronto, by a small margin. Both of these teams have incredibly deep forward lines, but Toronto gets the edge because they had eight forwards top the 40-point mark.
Boston: Led by Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug, the Boston defense has recovered from their ineffectiveness of the past few seasons. Zdeno Chara is still averaging 23 minutes per game and Krug has had a huge season offensively. Their defense may not be as dominant as it was in 2011, but it is top-notch.
Toronto: Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly were the only set of teammate defenders in the NHL this season to each top the 50-point mark. The issue for the Leafs is that they tend to give up many opportunities in their own zone. The young team allowed 33.9 shots on goal per game. That is not how a team wins in the playoffs.
Advantage: Boston. Reilly and Gardiner are talented, but Boston is the better defensive team.
Boston: Tuuka Rask had an absolutely horrid start to the season, losing 10 of his first 13 starts with a .896 save percentage. However, Rask turned it around later in the year, going 31-6-3 with a .923 save percentage in his last 40 games.
Toronto: Frederik Anderson was given a huge workload this year. He started 66 games and faced an absurd 2,211 shots on goal. It is largely because of him that the team was only 11th in goals against.
Advantage: Toronto. Rask may have had superior stats, but that was due to the play in front of him. Andersen has been overwhelmingly impressive, but let’s see if the heavy workload finally catches up with him in this series.
Boston: The Bruins are the only team in the league to possess top-five power play and penalty kill units. Their penalty kill unit ranked third in the league with a penalty kill percentage of 83.7% and their power play unit ranked fourth with a percentage of 23.5%.
Toronto: Largely due to the production of Mitch Marner, the Leafs have also been brilliant on the power play this season, ranking second in the NHL. Their penalty kill, however, was only slightly above average this season.
Advantage: Boston. Hands down.
Boston: Ryan Donato. After joining the team after the Winter Olympics, Donato gave the Bruins another offensive weapon down the stretch. Expect to hear his name quite frequently over the course of Boston’s playoff run.
Toronto: Frederik Andersen. He is not the best player on the roster, but he is the most important. It is up to him to step up and seize the moment when his defense falters. Andersen’s performance will make or break Toronto’s playoff run.
Toronto in seven. The Leafs and Bruins will leave absolutely nothing in the tank this series, but in the end Toronto will squeeze out a Game 7 victory.