Take a deep breath, Leafs Nation. Your boys have made the playoffs. Unfortunately though, the Toronto Maple Leafs drew the short straw and have the Boston Bruins as dance partners in their first-round series—their first playoff series in over nine years.
The Bruins have owned the Leafs the past few seasons, especially after the Bruins acquired Tuukka Rask and the pick used to select Tyler Seguin in the Phil Kessel deal.
The fact is, the Maple Leafs were not built initially to beat the Bruins under former head coach Ron Wilson. Wilson liked a wide-open style of game, and his special teams really took a licking because of it.
Now under coach Randy Carlyle, the Leafs special teams, especially their penalty killing, has taken a giant step forward.
Now, while its not the first-round matchup Leafs Nation wanted, it's still a series that I believe can be won by the Leafs, but it looks like it could be a seven-game series.
Here are five keys to the Leafs advancing to the second round.
The Leafs begin the NHL playoffs with the second-best penalty killing in the NHL at 87.9 percent, a mere 0.1 percent less than league leaders the Ottawa Senators. Their power play ranks 14th at 18.7 percent. Their special teams composite total is 16 (rankings of power play and penalty kill added together); only Philadelphia and San Jose have better composite-ranked special teams than the Leafs do.
Led by special teams extraordinaire Jay McClement, the Leafs have risen from second to last in the NHL in penalty killing to second best in a mere 48 games.
An unbelievable feat, and one that deserves some recognition toward McClement with a possible Selke Trophy nomination for best defensive forward in the NHL.
Boston, on the other hand, also has a strong penalty kill at at 87.1 percent (fourth best in the NHL), but its power play struggles, operating at a 14.8 percent clip, good for 26th in the NHL.
What the Leafs need to do here is win the special teams battle. Limit stupid penalties and capitalize on their power-play opportunities.
This is always a huge starting point for me when I discuss the Leafs versus Boston. Here, the Leafs will need to continue their balanced scoring attack and get some secondary scoring that doesn't come from the likes of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul or Nazem Kadri.
This means the Leafs need a consistent scoring effort out of the secondary players like Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and maybe, at times, some scoring on the back end from Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson in power-play opportunities.
The fact is, Bruins head coach Claude Julien will be riding Zdeno Chara's coattails all postseason long, as Chara will likely be shadowing Phil Kessel all the time. Kessel has struggled mightily against the Bruins since he was dealt away by the club.
Call it pressure, call it Zdeno Chara, call it whatever—Kessel just hasn't handled facing his old team well. If the Leafs can get secondary scoring and Kessel operating at his current level against the Bruins, the experts might be pegging the Leafs as surprise winners and not likely losers in this first-round matchup.
The Leafs goaltending has never been their strong suit since the days of Ed Belfour. However, this season, Reimer has been stellar. Ranking eighth among qualified goaltenders in save percentage at .924, Reimer has single-handedly brought he Leafs to the playoffs this season.
His good rebound control and his ability to take away the bottom half of the net has allowed the Leafs to return to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
What Reimer needs to do is just play like he's been playing. He doesn't have to play out of this world but rather just play to his capabilities.
If the Reimer of last season shows up, the Leafs could be in for a short series and an early tee time at the local golf course.
Reimer doesn't need to win the battle of the goaltenders, he just needs to stay close. If Rask has a 2.10 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, Reimer should have a 2.25 GAA and .915 save percentage. If he can stay close, he'll give the Leafs a chance, and that's all Leaf fans ask for is a chance.
The Toronto Maple Leafs rank 15th in faceoff percentage, right in the middle of the pack. Led by Tyler Bozak (25th at 52.6 percent), Mikhail Grabovski (39th at 50.6 percent) and Nazem Kadri (79th out of 823 qualified skaters at 44.2 percent), the Leafs are decent in the faceoff circle but could be a lot better. Jay McClement didn't qualify, but he wins draws at a 51.6 percent clip.
On the other side, we have the Boston Bruins, who ranked first overall in the NHL in faceoff percentage at 56.4.
Led by league leader Patrice Bergeron (62.1 percent), as well as David Krejci (15th at 55.2 percent), the Bruins always seem to start out with the puck because of their proficiency in the faceoff circle.
The Leafs centers will need to win draws at a rate near 50 percent in the series. Not only that, but if they are not winning at a high rate, the must out-hustle, out-work and out-score the centers instead.
This last point is not only for the centers but for everyone. They will need to match the toughness the Bruins will bring all series long. If they don't, expect the Leafs to lose the series in convincing fashion.
This is probably the sole reason why the Leafs gave up 100 five-on-five goals this season. The turnover, or as some would say, the giveaway.
The Leafs led the league by a wide margin by 75 over the Edmonton Oilers, a notably horrific defensive club. The San Jose Sharks are a close third, trailing the Leafs by 77 giveaways.
A funny stat here is that the Leafs play a much more sound road game, ranking 17th in giveaways on the road; however, they lead the NHL by over 30 giveaways at home.
I delved into a pretty hairy stat there, but the fact is, the Leafs play a different game at home than on the road. Their road game is simpler, sounder and more efficient. At home, they tend to pretty up the game and opt for fancy outlet passes, extra passes when not needed and the dreaded no-look pass.
The Leafs need to limit the giveaways so they limit the opposition's chances. But the odds are, if they lead the league in home giveaways, they'll continue to play recklessly in their own end.
This is probably the biggest facet of their game the Leafs need to change. Until they do, questions will always be asked of whether this team is truly an 82-game season playoff team or not.