How the Toronto Maple Leafs Can End Their Long Losing Streak vs. Boston Bruins
The Toronto Maple Leafs will play the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on Thursday night for the first time since they lost 8-0 to their rivals on March 19 of last season, which was one of the team's most embarrassing defeats in a long time.
When these Original Six clubs met at the Air Canada Centre last month, the Leafs played one of their best games against the Bruins in a long time, but ended up losing 1-0. Since that defeat, Toronto is 11-5 and appears to be headed to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Let's look at four ways the Leafs can beat the Bruins on Thursday night and snap their seven-game losing streak against Boston.
Be Physical with the Bruins, Don't Be Afraid of Taking Penalties
One notable difference from last year's Leafs squad to this year's is that it is a much tougher team that will not be bullied by physical opponents like the Bruins.
The additions of Frazer McLaren, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser and Leo Komarov (the NHL's leader in hits) and the increased ice time of Colton Orr have made the Leafs one of the toughest teams to play against in the Eastern Conference because of the size, strength and toughness in their bottom six and on the blue line.
The Leafs lead the league with 734 hits (66 more than the Flyers in second), and they also rank fourth in blocked shots (365) and 12th in takeaways (149).
Boston has the worst power play at home this season (2-of-33), so Toronto can be physical with the Bruins and not have to worry about them capitalizing on their power-play opportunities.
The Leafs had a 44-29 hits advantage in their first meeting with Boston on February 2 and proved that they could compete with the Bruins and have a chance to win by playing a physical, defensive style of hockey.
The Bruins are coming off two straight frustrating losses in which they blew third-period leads. They're also in the middle of a difficult month of March that includes 17 games in 30 days. If the Leafs come into Boston and establish themselves as the more physical team in the first period, they will earn themselves a positive result from this game.
Avoid a 3rd-Period Meltdown
The Leafs have been outscored 11-3 in the third period during their last eight matchups with the Bruins.
Toronto wasn't able to put opponents away in the third period last season, and the team hasn't improved much in this area in 2013. The Leafs allowed the sixth-most third-period goals in 2011-2, which is where they currently rank in 2013.
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The Bruins are one of two NHL teams that haven't lost in regulation when trailing after two periods (2-0-2), and they have made several third-period comebacks this season to win games or go into overtime.
Boston has also outscored opponents 20-11 in the third period, and it has shut out opponents in the third period in 15 of their 20 games this season.
If the Leafs does not play well defensively in the final 20 minutes of regulation on Thursday night, it's very unlikely that they will leave TD Garden with two points.
Take Advantage of the Power Play
The Leafs are 9-3 this season when they score a power-play goal. Since the Bruins are so good at even strength, Toronto must take advantage of its power-play opportunities if it is going to beat Boston.
The Leafs have scored on just three of their last 20 power-play opportunities against the Bruins, so this is one area that Toronto has to improve in to defeat a team like Boston.
Toronto's power play ranks 13th in the league, and the Leafs have scored with the man-advantage in each of the last two games.
The Bruins' penalty kill is the best in the NHL at 91.6 percent, but they have allowed four power-play goals over their last four games, which is more than they gave up in their previous 16 games combined.
Special teams will be a major factor in the outcome of this game.
Phil Kessel Dominates Offensively
Phil Kessel has not played well against the Bruins since they traded him to the Leafs before the 2009-10 season.
The two first-round picks he was traded for became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, who appear to be two franchise players for Boston to build around over the next decade.
Every times Kessel comes to TD Garden, he is greeted with "Thank You Kessel " chants from Bruins fans, and he will certainly hear those again on Thursday.
For the Leafs to defeat the Bruins and end their losing streak against Boston, they need Kessel to have a great performance and contribute offensively. He enters Thursday's matchup with goals in back-to-back games and five points (three goals, two assists) over the last five games.
He has scored just three goals with six assists and a plus/minus of minus-11 in 19 career games versus the Bruins. None of those goals were scored at even strength, and Kessel had zero points in three games at TD Garden last season.
A big game from Kessel would give the Leafs a strong chance to earn two important points in the standings and also help him build some much-needed confidence for the final two months of the season.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.