Almost six full months have passed since the Boston Bruins barnstormed back from a 4-1 deficit to zap the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. The page in this divisional Original Six rivalry will finally turn on Saturday when the Leafs revisit TD Bank Garden.
With all five members of the defunct Northeast Division joining three other teams in the NHL’s new-look Atlantic, this card will be less frequent than in previous years. The Bs and the Buds will square off four times in 2013-14, with the other three instances being December 8, January 14 and April 3.
That notwithstanding, especially with the way the standings are beginning to take shape, each encounter promises to hold significant sway on either party’s playoff direction. Going into Thursday night, Toronto was one of three Atlantic tenants in a virtual tie for first with 20 points, while Boston immediately trailed with 17.
Beneath those basics sit a multitude of intriguing trends and common threads within potentially decisive aspects of the matchup.
Here are five storylines for all followers to remember this Saturday and to keep in handy for the three later installments of the Bruins vs. Maple Leafs season series.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.
At the five-week mark of the schedule, Boston and Toronto are experiencing reverse trends in the effectiveness of their respective defensive leaders.
While his team entered Thursday’s action tied for second in defense with a 1.93 goals-against average, Zdeno Chara has brooked 2.63 opposing strikes for every 60 minutes he skates (15 in 342:37). If that rate persists, it will be the Boston captain’s most swollen average in the Claude Julien era.
Conversely, the Maple Leafs rank eighth in team defense with a 2.40 GAA. Yet Dion Phaneuf has shared responsibility for only 12 of Toronto’s 36 setbacks in 361:12 minutes, which translates to a solid 1.99 individual GAA.
Of Toronto’s hot start in general, Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail penned in an Oct. 31 column, “Phaneuf is a big part of what’s going right, by playing a far quieter band of hockey than he once did.”
This is quite the contrast from his erratic first three full seasons as a Leaf, when he and his club perpetually posted GAAs north of the 2.50 range.
Time will tell as to whether this new-and-improved Phaneuf and Toronto blue-line brigade are here to stay. At the other end, only meticulous management will prevent Chara and the Bruins from enduring greater leakiness as residual wear and tear continues to pile upon last season.
As an aside, Phaneuf will likely see regular shifts against former Calgary Flames teammate Jarome Iginla, who has joined David Krejci and Milan Lucic as Boston’s only dependable line so far this season.
As of midweek, the Maple Leafs ranked sixth on the NHL’s power-play leaderboard with a 23.5 percent conversion rate. They are third overall in team penalty killing, having successfully made it through 87.1 percent of their shorthanded predicaments.
Overall, Boston is 35-of-43 through its first 14 games, giving it 81.4 percent success on the penalty kill, which is good for No. 17 in the league. The power play was No. 20 entering Thursday night’s action with only seven conversions on 43 opportunities for 16.3 percent.
Toronto’s discrepancy with the Bruins is not as vast as it seems on at least one end of the special teams’ spectrum. If you delete the debacle against New Jersey, which burned the Bruins on four out of seven chances on Oct. 26, Boston is 32-of-36 on the kill.
That would translate to an upper-echelon 88.9 percent rate, which is a more accurate measurement of capability.
The Bruins' power play, though, continues to leave more for the New England faithful to desire. Boston cultivated its first seven conversions in only six of its first 14 outings. The last two came against the Ducks and Islanders, who were third and second worst among penalty-killing teams going into Thursday.
One more thing: Toronto leads the league with four shorthanded goals already to its credit.
Are the Leafs legitimate in that area and the other aspects of special teams? Working against Boston’s penalty killing could help to percolate an answer.
For the Bruins, five-on-five supremacy may be their best bet to win these four virtual four-point packages.
As it seeks to stay ahead of the Bruins and others in the Atlantic, one challenge for Toronto in the coming months will be compensating for Dave Bolland’s absence.
The Leafs acquired the versatile pivot in a trade less than a week after Bolland cemented Chicago’s victory over the Bruins in Game 6 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final. Yet the Boston faithful may not see him on the adversary’s active roster until the season-series finale on April 3.
Bolland underwent surgery this week for an injury that is being likened to what Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson endured last winter. Karlsson took 10 weeks to resume game action, which was a quicker recovery than one should have logically expected.
For the foreseeable future, another leaned-on Maple Leafs center in Tyler Bozak will be joining Bolland on the sideline.
From a Boston standpoint, however, this will only put Toronto at a disadvantage in this matchup if lines other than the aforementioned Iginla-Krejci-Lucic troika start stirring. Only by those means can the Bruins offer a measuring pole for the Leafs’ depth as their chart is currently configured.
Tuukka Rask, a one-time Maple Leafs farmhand, has company in the Toronto tandem of James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier among the NHL’s top 10 save-percentage leaders. Rask entered Thursday’s tilt against Florida with a .941 stopping rate, while Reimer and Bernier boast .942 and .933 percentages, respectively.
Quantitatively speaking, the two Leafs netminders have worked up more substantial sweats. Their skating mates have forced them to deal with 36.8 opposing shots per game, and both are in the 2.3 GAA range, whereas Rask still sits south of two.
Qualitatively, the Bruins will need to replenish and flex their depth if they are to keep up Toronto’s tendency and make it count in the category that actually decides the game.
Beyond Saturday, odds are the Leafs will eventually learn to whittle down the back-benders on their backstops, especially as essential players return from injury and assuming Phaneuf stays stingy. In turn, the Reimer-Bernier rotation could evolve into an advantage over Boston’s prospective overreliance on Rask, who lacks a similarly seasoned crease colleague, as the season wears on.
As many as four defensemen—two on each side, with no more than one full-length, 82-game NHL season to his credit—could be involved anytime these teams intersect this season.
The Bruins are doling out regular minutes to professional sophomores Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug. The Leafs have Jake Gardiner engaging in his third professional campaign and second as an NHL regular and are keeping teenage rookie Morgan Rielly on their roster.
Right now, Rielly’s status as an active game-night regular is uncertain with the recently injured Mark Fraser making his way back into the equation. If and when he does play, though, he can expect to keep playing regular power-play minutes, as he and Gardiner have both done this fall.
Gardiner is presently averaging 2:12 of ice time with the man advantage as well as 54 seconds of shorthanded action per night. Meanwhile, Boston is banking on Hamilton and Krug alike as point-based point-getters to help saturate their often arid power-play output.
So far, they have trailed only Chara in terms of minutes played in that situation and have each tallied multiple conversions. Krug has half of the Bruins blueliners’ cumulative power-play production with five points.
How much everyone grows on both sides of the puck in their respective 2013-14 seasons should lend intriguing simultaneous sidebars to the season series.