Preview and Prediction for Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins
The 2013 Stanley Cup playoff matchups are finally set, and after the Ottawa Senators knocked off the Boston Bruins in the final game of the season, it'll be the B's taking on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the postseason.
There's no shortage of star power here, as the likes of Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara take on Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and Dion Phaneuf.
This will be a hotly contested series, as both teams play mildly different styles.
While the Maple Leafs have a handful of big forwards, they aren't built to play a grinding, mash 'em up game to the same degree as the Bruins.
Goaltending could also play a huge role in this series. Both James Reimer and Tuukka Rask are trying to solidify themselves as top-notch goaltenders in their young careers.
Without further ado, let's break down what should be a classic series between two Original Six teams that have not met in the playoffs since the 1970s.
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Toronto Maple Leafs
After a much-publicized nine-year absence from the playoffs, the Leafs are finally one of the best 16 teams in the NHL. Just an appearance probably won't be enough for one of the most rabid fanbases in the league, however.
Toronto didn't have to scrap for points in April like so many other teams did because it never really fell into a hole throughout the season. There was a five-game losing streak in March, but that was offset by otherwise steady play throughout the lineup.
Nazem Kadri finally had his breakout season, and Phil Kessel continued to rack up buckets of goals and assists. The emergence of James Reimer as a true starting netminder buoyed the Leafs as well.
The Leafs didn't exactly finish strong in April, but the playoffs are called the second season for a reason.
The Bruins closed out the regular season by eating a tough loss to the Ottawa Senators. A victory would have secured them a division title in one of the toughest groupings in all of hockey. Still, hanging on in the race against the Montreal Canadiens signifies just how good this team really is.
The B's lost seven times in the month of April, costing themselves better playoff seeding and positioning, but the season as a whole was a consistent effort from the boys in Black and Yellow.
They were outstanding in the month of February, winning eight of their 10 games in that time span. At that point the goals were coming consistently and the defense was locking down teams after leads were secured.
The wheels didn't fall off as the season progressed by any means, but it's been a few months since the Bruins were playing their best hockey.
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Nazem Kadri has taken Toronto by storm, racking up 44 points and helping the Maple Leafs make the playoffs for the first time since the salary cap era began in 2005. After spending two-and-a-half years in the minors, Kadri finally seized a roster spot with a strong camp and hasn't stopped scoring since.
It doesn't take a statistical analyst to see that Kadri's shooting percentage is just not sustainable, however. James Mirtle does a great job of breaking this down for the Toronto Globe and Mail, but one part of the article really sticks out.
...opposition goaltenders (have been) posting an abysmal .847 save percentage when he has been on the ice at even strength.
That number means that the Leafs have had a 15.3-per-cent shooting percentage whenever Kadri has played, nearly double the league average (7.91 per cent)...
By comparison, the average shooting percentage when Sidney Crosby, the world’s top player, has been on the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins in those years has been closer to 12.5 per cent – roughly 20-per-cent less than Kadri.
So the big question is, can Kadri maintain his ridiculous scoring pace for a playoff round or two?
And how will Phil Kessel respond to the bright lights of the Stanley Cup playoffs? He's never been in this situation before—the leading scorer on a team that will be the focus of the opposition night in and night out across a playoff series.
Tuukka Rask will look to build off an outstanding regular season that could see him receive a nod for the Vezina, and James Reimer will look to continue his evolution as The Man in Toronto.
And where is Tyler Seguin? He's been invisible through long spurts of the season, and it might have something to do with needing to re-adjust to the North American style of hockey after spending the lockout overseas.
If he can reassert himself as a rising star, then the Bruins will be much tougher to match up against.
Players to Watch
Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs
The electric Kessel will get his first crack at the NHL playoffs as the main scoring threat for his team.
Will he be able to rise to the occasion?
The answer to that question could decide whether or not the Toronto Maple Leafs are able to advance beyond this tough matchup with the Boston Bruins.
He's been one of the most dangerous regular-season scorers in the NHL over the last three years, but he's had to sit on the sidelines during the playoffs while the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin flexed their scoring muscles in the postseason.
Now Kessel will get his chance to prove once and for all that he is a truly elite scorer. He'll see a ton of Zdeno Chara. Watching him try to use his speed to get around the hulking defender should be one of the most interesting matchups early in the postseason.
Tyler Seguin, Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins have several versatile and talented forwards up front. Brad Marchand led the team in scoring and in goals, and David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton rounds out one of the deepest groups of forwards in the playoffs.
As good as all these players are, none of them possess the same consistent game-breaking ability that Seguin has.
When he gets rolling, he's one of the slickest young players in the league, and if he can regain his 2012 form, the Bruins will be much tougher to beat. Seguin hasn't been bad in 2013; he just didn't take the step forward many anticipated he would after he dominated play overseas.
A ballin' out of control Seguin could put Boston over the top in this one.
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Toronto Maple Leafs, James Reimer
Reimer has stood his ground and done nothing but play great hockey despite rumors swirling that management was looking to bring in a more seasoned goaltender for the playoffs.
The opportunity for management to unseat Optimus Reim came and went, and the starting goaltender in Toronto remained the same.
Reimer now has the opportunity to show the brass that they were sorely mistaken when they thought that he wasn't quite ready for the Stanley Cup playoffs. He's a huge reason that Toronto made the postseason in the first place, and it's fitting that the fortunes of the Leafs could live and die by his play.
This is his first postseason appearance as an NHL netminder, so his quick adjustment to playoff hockey will be imperative if Toronto wants to advance here.
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Few netminders have been as good as Rask in this shortened 2013 season. He's posted an outstanding 19-9-5 record while posting immaculate numbers. Both his .930 save percentage and 1.97 GAA are among the best in the NHL, and his five shutouts place him in a tie for the league lead.
This isn't Rask's first trip to the postseason, but he'll need to be much better than he was for the Bruins last year.
He started 13 games during the 2012 playoffs, allowing an average of 2.61 goals per game while putting up a so-so .912 save percentage.
If Rask's regular-season play is any indication, he has another level to bring to the second season.
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The Big Forwards of the Boston Bruins vs. the Fast Forwards of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Guys like Phil Kessel play a very different game from, say, Milan Lucic.
The Bruins forwards love the physical play and exist on this planet to make life miserable for opposing netminders and defenders across a long playoff series. That doesn't necessarily mean that Boston has the advantage here, however.
Playoff hockey games are typically won by the teams that are most able to "play their game."
For instance, if Toronto can manage to open the ice up a bit and get Boston to play a run-and-gun type of game, then the Maple Leafs will have the advantage in quickness, and the size of Boston's forwards won't matter as much.
Likewise, if Boston can get the Leafs to play close to the boards and force them to a perimeter game, suddenly the likes of Kessel and Nazem Kadri don't look so dangerous.
The almighty X-factor for Toronto could turn out to be Joffrey Lupul. He's looked outstanding since returning to action and is capable of playing the grinding game that Boston adores.
The mismatch will take place whenever either team manages to swing the "type of game" pendulum in their favor.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Will Win If...
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Their top players are allowed to skate and provide ample offense for the team. If the Boston Bruins can't find a way to put a cap on the creative, chemistry-fueled play of Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul and James Van Riemsdyk, then this could be a shorter series than people think.
The Maple Leafs also possess several talented blueliners that can score and produce on the offensive side of the puck.
Cody Franson has been a hockey-godsend to Toronto. He's the fourth-leading scorer on the team and has posted an outstanding 29 points this season. Dion Phaneuf is also capable of putting up points for his team.
Toronto has a very balanced attack, and if it can get favorable matchups against Boston's larger team, it could produce enough offense to put the Maple Leafs over the top.
James Reimer just needs to keep doing what he's been doing throughout the season as well. He's supposed to be a netminder that possess keen mental toughness, and he'll need every bit of it when he plays on the road in Boston.
The Boston Bruins Will Win If...
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They manage to trick the Toronto Maple Leafs into trying to out-"big and bad" them.
The Bruins have assembled a group of hard-hitting, bruising forwards and defenders. They've been successful when they've managed to slow games down, turning them into scrum fests and getting arguably more talented guys away from their games.
Every time Brad Marchand manages to draw a penalty, it will be a plus for the Bruins. Every crunching body check Zdeno Chara manages to land will be a plus for the Bruins. Every roughing penalty Milan Lucic can goad Nazem Kadri into is a plus for the Bruins.
If Toronto wants to have a chance here, it needs to stay out of the box and stick to its game. The Bruins set plenty of traps throughout these long, contested series and won a championship by taking talented players to the box and grinding out wins.
The recipe for success hasn't changed much in Boston over the last few years, and if the Bruins can get Toronto to play a gritty, penalty-filled series, then they could be the squad moving on.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Defeat the Boston Bruins in 6 Games
The motivation for the Toronto Maple Leafs to take it to the Boston Bruins is too great of a force at this point. Nearly a decade of regular-season letdowns will be fueling the Leafs and their fans, and it will be too much for the Boston Bruins to overcome.
The B's will try and lean on the Leafs, but cooler heads will prevail here. Phil Kessel isn't known to blow a gasket, and it isn't like Toronto doesn't have a few guys that can push back.
Scrumming with Zdeno Chara doesn't sound like a good time, but for how many shifts will he be out there without Dion Phaneuf just waiting for the chance to jump in?
Throughout the lineup, the Leafs have too much to prove in this series.
Kessel needs a win here to show that he's the guy that management can build around. Nazem Kadri needs to have a great series to show that his regular season wasn't a fluke. James Reimer knows that management has been trying to replace him all season and needs a great series here to get them off of his back and prove them wrong.
More than anything though, Leafs Nation needs a series win here to breathe easy after an unprecedented run of mismanaged hockey teams in Toronto.
There won't be a louder barn in the first round of the playoffs, and the Leafs will use this motivation to secure a first-round victory.