What Happened to Boston Bruins' Dominance over Toronto Maple Leafs?
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When the Boston Bruins lost their season finale to the Ottawa Senators and finished second in the Northeast Division instead of first, they lost their season-long battle to the Montreal Canadiens, who won the division title.
The Bruins are an accomplished team led by veteran talent like Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.
There were no tears in the locker room about losing the regular-season honor and dropping to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
When the second season came into focus, the Bruins liked what they saw. They had a first-round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team they had dominated with nine wins in their last 10 games.
They had been particularly tough on the Leafs in 2011-12, sweeping all six games, and many of those wins were by significant margins. Even when the Bruins weren't at their best, when they saw the blue and white Maple Leafs jersey, they breathed a sigh of relief and rolled.
But the first-round playoff series has not been a cakewalk for the Bruins. The matchup officially was transformed into a struggle when the Maple Leafs held on for a 2-1 victory in Game 5. The win was the Maple Leafs' second victory in Boston.
The Bruins still lead the series 3-2.
So far the Leafs have not been able to solve the Bruins in games at the Air Canada Center, but head coach Randy Carlyle's team appears to be growing and changing as this series progresses. The Bruins may end up surviving and advancing, but they have learned that these are not the same old Buds.
The Bruins might like to point to things they have done wrong in the two games they have lost in the series—not starting well, poor defensive positioning—but that doesn't tell the whole story.
The Leafs are playing well and they are using their best assets to push the Bruins hard.
Two of those assets are speed and quickness. They always had that edge on paper, but they haven't been able to use that edge to their advantage consistently until this series.
In Game 5, Tyler Bozak sped away from Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference to get a clear chance against Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask while the Leafs were shorthanded. Bozak buried the chance and gave the Leafs the all-important first goal.
Clarke MacArthur used his speed and momentum after he intercepted a Bruins pass early in the third period. He sped by flat-footed Johnny Boychuk and tucked the puck past Rask.
That goal seemed to wake up the Bruins, who came at the Leafs in waves throughout much of the third period.
They managed to score one goal when Chara fired a wrister by James Reimer, but they were not able to get another puck past the Toronto goalie the rest of the game.
That's another area where the Leafs have shown dramatic improvement. Reimer has been a solid goalie all season, but he has stepped up against the Bruins. His 43-save performance in Game 5 was eye-catching.
He'll have to find a way to repeat that showing two more times if the Leafs are going to come all the way back, but he has showed he is capable of competing with one of the best goalies in the league in Rask.
That idea would have been laughed at a year ago or at the start of the season.
Count the NHL's all-time leading scorer Wayne Gretzky as impressed by the Leafs' play against the Bruins. The Great One told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun that Carlyle was having a big impact on the team's ability to hang in with a big, powerful and proven team like the Bruins.
"It’s about believing in your system. The system starts with the head coach," Gretzky said. "He’s got tremendous credibility after winning a Stanley Cup himself [2007 in Anaheim]. It’s not a question of players saying, 'Are we sure he knows what he’s doing?' Because they’re absolutely positive he knows what he’s doing. The credibility starts right there with the coach."
Gretzky also said Reimer was "tremendous" in goal and his game was improving significantly.
Will the Leafs complete a 3-1 comeback against the Bruins?
"There was so much talk throughout the hockey world wondering if their goaltending was strong enough to get through the season and get into the playoffs," Gretzky said. "I think their goaltender has answered that question extremely well."
The Leafs have shown they are not intimidated by the Bruins, and that's a big part of why they have been able to win multiple games.
They have extended the series and the sixth game will be on home ice. They are within sight of the finish line, but there is still much work to be done.
The Leafs must simply take it one shift at a time and keep pressing forward if they are going to have any chance of completing a miracle comeback.
The Bruins will fight hard to avoid a collapse that will remind their fans of the 2010 disaster against the Philadelphia Flyers. In that series, the Bruins won the first three games before they dropped the final four.
That series was excruciating for the team, but it led to maturity and growth that paid off in 2011 with a Stanley Cup win over the Vancouver Canucks.
The Bruins know what it feels like to lose a lead. They will do everything in their power to avoid it again.
The Leafs know what they are up against the rest of the way.
They may not get there, but they won't be intimidated.
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