The Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week and the Toronto Maple Leafs already know their first-round opponent.
The Boston Bruins. Again.
The schedule won’t come out until Sunday, but we already know the road to the Stanley Cup will go through Boston, as the Leafs play the hated Bruins for the third time in their last four trips to the postseason.
With two of the league’s top teams facing off in the opening round yet again, most everyone believes that this series will be unpredictable, yet extremely fun to watch.
As for the Leafs’ odds of coming out on top, it’s possible, but not easy. Here are seven things that have to happen for Toronto to finally slay the Boston dragon.
1. Andersen has to be better than last year
In last year’s postseason, the Leafs’ No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen looked anything but his usual self.
Andersen’s .896 save percentage (stemming from allowing 23 goals over seven games) was a major factor in the Leafs looking overmatched at many points in the series. He was pulled in Game 2 after allowing three goals on just five shots.
The Leafs are hopeful to be able to manage his fatigue. Andersen looks like he’ll be finishing off the year with 60 starts, down from the consecutive 66-game seasons he played his first two years in Toronto.
With stalwart Tuukka Rask in Boston’s net, Andersen’s play will need to be respectable to give the Leafs a chance.
2. Stop the best line in hockey
Brad Marchand leads the charge with his first 100-point season, but the entire Bruins top unit has been a nightmare matchup for Toronto in recent seasons.
Winger David Pastrnak lit up the Leafs for 13 points over the seven-game series last year in the playoffs, while Marchand had nine points. Centre Patrice Bergeron, who missed a game due to injury, had eight.
As the Bruins ranks 11th in the league in total goals this season with 256, there’s no mistaking that what’s often argued as the best line in hockey will be a nuisance all series long.
3. Win the refs over
With just 210 power play opportunities in 81 games, the Maple Leafs have been drawing penalties at the lowest per game rate in the league, though they’ve also taken the second fewest penalties at just 203 themselves.
Boston sits at 249 power play plays drawn, and 242 penalties taken, ranking eighth and 19th respectively. While we don’t know yet how physical the play will be or how the referees will be calling the series, getting the edge by creating as many power play opportunities as possible could be the X-factor.
4. Optimize the lineup
One of the biggest complaints from the Leafs fanbase this season was how long it took to reunite William Nylander and Auston Matthews – once the former returned to the Leafs’ lineup.
One of the NHL’s more dynamic duos in their first two full seasons together, Nylander and Matthews were often played with a rotating cast of linemates that never really seemed to mesh.
We don’t quite know how the Leafs will line up their forward lines and defensive pairings, but managing the ice time of the team’s best players, while limiting older players such as Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau to be able to play their best should be a priority for head coach Mike Babcock.
5. Win twice in Boston
In the infamous 2013 Leafs-Bruins series, Toronto managed to win the second game on the road to tie things up at one, before dropping the next two at home. They did eventually grind out a gritty 2-1 win in Boston in Game 5, but we all know about their infamous 5-4 overtime road loss after leading 4-1 late in the third period.
Last year, the Leafs also won a must-win Game 5 in Boston, but dropped the opening two games of the series as well as the final game on the road. If you’re keeping track, that’s a 3-5 record in Boston over the two postseason matchups.
It’s nearly a completely different roster from six years ago, but the task remains the same: if the Leafs want to win the series, they’ll have to come out even or better in the games in Boston.
6. Continue strong defensive play in the third period
While the Leafs haven’t necessarily shed their reputation of being a team that bleeds shots, allowing 32.9 a game, they’ve been quite effective at closing out games. Their record of 36-0-1 of leading after two periods is the league’s best, with just a lone loss in overtime to Vancouver being the only blemish on that record.
Just two seasons ago, the Leafs had a 31-1-9 record in the same scenario, as they reached overtime in 22 of their 82 games that season. While playoff hockey and regular season hockey can sometimes be different beasts, there’s at least the hope that this is a Leafs team that’s “learned to win” the close ones.
7. Remember to breathe
Everyone and their dog knows what a playoff series win (against Boston, no less) would mean for this city and this team, having not been to the second round of the playoffs since 2004.
It’s not hard to imagine who the scapegoats are already if the Leafs lose again: the first year general manager in Kyle Dubas who’s unprepared, the biggest free agent in team history in John Tavares, William Nylander not living up to his contract after holding out until December, the highest paid coach ever in Mike Babcock… and the list goes on.
But while it’s easy to get caught up in all the what-ifs, just breathe. Soak it all in. Enjoy the moment.
Hockey is supposed to be fun, right?