April 12, 2018 | 10:17am ET
By Shawn Hutcheon, The Fourth Period
BRUINS READY FOR “VERY TOUGH TEAM” IN MAPLE LEAFS
Patrice Bergeron, centre
BOSTON, MA -- For the Boston Bruins (50-20-12, 112 points), the regular-season ended with a loss to the Florida Panthers and that loud noise you heard emanating from the northeast was that of quite a few Boston bandwagon joyriders jumping off said wagon.
The loss meant a second place finish in the Atlantic Division and a first-round Stanley Cup playoff meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs (49-26-7, 105 points).
This will be the 15th time in the history of the two Original Six franchises that they will meet in the postseason with the last meeting concluding with the thrilling Game 7 comeback win by Boston on Patrice Bergeron’s overtime goal in 2013.
Regardless of the naysayers in both Bruins Nation and the local media, the Bruins, who lost four of their last five games, concluded the season with 24 games (13 on the road) in the last 45 days of the schedule compiling a record of 13-7-4. Yes, they had their fate in their hands when they skated onto TD Garden ice for game 82 versus Florida but at that point, the grueling schedule had taken its toll on coach Bruce Cassidy’s club and the team was running on empty. That’s not an excuse, it is just a fact that the players are human and like the rest of us, they get tired and give their best but on that night, it just was not meant to be.
After the contest, Cassidy and his squad felt the sting of the defeat then turned their attention to the Maple Leafs.
“I mean, it sucks when you lose when you have an opportunity right in front of you and you let it get away,” Cassidy said. “At the end of the day, we’ll look at it, and we’ll try to take positives and be ready for Toronto. They’re a very good team.”
Many a Bruins critic has pointed out Toronto’s youth and speed which has been very impressive this year and last will be the difference in the series but Boston has youth and speed of its own that it will rely on.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Cassidy continued. “Two Original Six teams. They’re young. We feel – they’ve got some veteran guys – (Patrick) Marleau, (James) van Riemsdyk, certain guys that they expect to lean on. (Nazem) Kadri’s kind of in between. We have some younger guys; we have some guys we’re going to lean on. We both exited in the first round last year, probably learned some lessons. They’ve got a great coach (Mike Babcock) that I’ve always looked up to and tried to learn from. I think, both good goaltenders (Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney). It should be a terrific series if both teams are on their game, and that’s playoff hockey right there, a lot of speed, probably a lot of physicality.”
David Backes, who went through the trials and tribulations of having 10 inches of his colon removed due to Diverticulitis surgery this season only to return and post a total of 33 points on 14 goals and 19 assists, agreed with his coach and expanded on what the Bruins will need in order to win the series.
“I think that they are a team that plays fast and plays with energy and they’ve got a ton of skill and young talent on their team,” Backes said. “We have a lot of young talent on our team too, but maybe that core group of guys that’s been there and done that in the playoffs, made deep runs, a couple to the Finals. One where they hoisted the Cup. We need to use that experience and how we play in the playoffs, every single game play matters and is magnified and can be the difference between winning and losing the game. That’s the mentality we need to have. We need to have that urgency for 60 minutes or 80 minutes. Playoffs (games) can last longer than that into the wee-hours of the morning. However long it takes, we need to stick with our game plan. We have plenty of ability in this room to get the job done.”
Brad Marchand expects the Leafs to battle from the first drop of the puck to the final siren every night.
“A very tough team,” Marchand answered when asked to describe the Maple Leafs. “They play very fast, a lot of skilled players, very high tempo and they never quit. You watch the way they play all year, they battle last second and they’ve won a lot of games in the last minute, so they’re competitive and they don’t shy away from anything, so it’s going to be a good series. They’re one of the toughest teams that I think we’ve played against all year and it will be a good battle. It’s going to be extremely competitive and we have to be willing to sacrifice every little bit, every shift, and if we don’t do that then we’re going to lose. So, we just have to be dialed in and prepared to do whatever it takes. But I think we have the right mindset in this room and guys want to win and they’re feeling good about the group, so hopefully it goes well.”
While many Bruins fans are lamenting the fact that the Black and Gold will open the postseason against such a high quality team such as Toronto, Cassidy and his charges finished the regular season seven points ahead of the Maple Leafs and let’s not forget Boston suffered a total of 304 man-games lost due to injury.
Only David Pastrnak and Tim Schaller played in all 82 games this season. Conversely, players who make up the core group of the team such as Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, David Krejci, Rick Nash, Bergeron, Marchand, and Backes, missed between 11 (Chara) and 44 (McQuaid) games, respectively, and the team still finished fourth overall in the League.
Being out of with an injury is not the ideal fashion to get your rest but come playoff time, it can work in your favor. Those players who missed time and have returned or will return during the playoffs may not be as tired as their opponents who remained healthy throughout the season and obviously, that can be a huge factor as series progress.
In head-to-head matchups this year, Toronto won three of the four meetings between the two clubs. Boston went 1-2-1 against their neighbors to the north.
Bergeron, Pastrnak, and Torey Krug led the Bruins with four points each against the Leafs. Mitch Marner paced Toronto with nine points on three goals and six assists versus Boston.
On the season, Brad Marchand led Boston with 85 points (13th in NHL points) on 34 goals (15th in NHL), 51 assists in 68 games. Eight of his goals were of the game-winning variety, placing him 10th in that category in the League and of course, he led the NHL with five overtime tallies. His plus-25 was good enough for 17th in the League.
Pastrnak followed close behind Marchand with 80 points (21st in the League) on a team-leading 35 goals (16th among NHL skaters) and 45 assists. Thirteen of the 21-year-old’s goals have come on the power play which is 12th-best in the League. Pastrnak ended the year in ninth place among NHL players by scoring 19 of his goals on the road.
Marner was Toronto’s leading scorer this season with 22 goals, 47 assists resulting in 69 points ranking him 37th in the League’s point production race.
Of course, superstar in the making, Auston Matthews, followed closely behind Marner with 63 points (34 goals, 29 assists) in 62 games and appeared to be heating up as the season came to a close. In the plus/minus category, Matthews came in 16th with a plus-25.
Incidentally, Matthews’ 63 points matched Bergeron’s offensive output. Matthews finished 61st in points in the NHL. Bergeron ended the campaign in 60th place.
Toronto finished the regular season second overall in the League in goals scored with 277 or 3.29 goals per game. Boston ended the season sixth in that category with 270 which translated to 3.26 per contest.
Defensively, the Bruins were the third-best club in the League giving up 214 goals (2.57 per outing) meanwhile, the Maple Leafs were ranked 11th with 232 goals against (2.81).
When it came to special teams, Toronto posted the second-best power play in the NHL by converting on 25-percent of their man-advantage situations. Boston was fourth at 23.6-percent on the power play.
When it came to defending power plays, Boston ended the year in third place in the League with an efficiency rate of 83.7-percent while Toronto placed eleventh in the NHL at 81.4-percent.
In the crease, Tuukka Rask played fewer than 60 games for the first time since the 2013-14 season when he appeared in 58 games. This season, he posted a 34-14-5 record in 54 games played. His 34 wins was eighth-best in the League. The native of Finland also recorded a 2.36 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.
Boston backup, Anton Khudobin was stellar in relief duty of Rask throughout the year as his 16-6-7 record attests. He also carried a goals-against-average of 2.56 with a .913 save percentage.
Andersen saw the bulk of the action for the Maple Leafs protecting the twine. He put together a 38-21-5 record with a 2.81 goals-against and a .918 save percentage.
Andersen’s colleague in the crease, McElhinney went 11-5-1 in 18 appearances compiling a goals-against-average of 2.15 and a save percentage of .934
There is no doubt this series has the potential to be one of, if not, the most thrilling and fun series of the first round. Boston fans have their concerns but GM Don Sweeney assured them they will see a different team over a potential seven game series than they saw in the final game of the regular season.
“Well, we won 50 games, and I think the body of work speaks that this team deserves to be where we are, and we focus on Thursday night,” Sweeney said. “I think every team would recognize that they have areas that they want to clean up. We just want to be playing our best hockey Thursday night. And, the schedule has probably presented some challenges, but for the most part, the whole schedule all throughout the year has presented a lot of challenges for our hockey club, and they’ve risen to meet each and every one of them for the most part. I think the body of work, as I said, speaks for itself, so they’ll be ready to go.”