It’s probably impossible to pair two teams playing worse entering a first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series than the Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs right now. Those two slumping teams will start their series Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The Bruins won just twice in their last nine games, and they failed to score more than two goals in any of those goals (minus an empty-net score in a win against Florida). Boston’s penalty kill allowed nine goals over the last eight games of the season, and the power play has gone 4-for-30 in April.
Toronto won just twice in its last six games, a span that saw the Leafs outshot, 213-135. They were just 6-5-1 in their last 12. The Leafs haven’t beaten the Bruins in Boston since March 31, 2011, and one of their best players, Phil Kessel, didn’t record a point in four games against Boston this season.
Is it possible for both teams to lose?
Of course not, but this series is going to be like a boxing match between two guys strapped together with a bungee cord. The Bruins have owned the Leafs the last couple seasons, but we know how successful the Bruins have been the last two seasons at making life difficult for themselves and underestimating opponents.
What the Bruins have in experience, they lack in offensive firepower. What the Leafs lack in postseason experience, they make up for with grit.
You can’t underestimate James Reimer in the Leafs’ net any more than you had a right to overlook Braden Holtby in Washington’s crease last spring. Both these teams know they’ll get at least a little offense from their bigger stars, including Tyler Seguin, James van Riemsdyk, David Krejci and Kessel. This series might come down to secondary scoring if either club can get some. That could mean a clutch goal from someone like Chris Kelly or Mikhail Grabovski.
We’ve seen how solid defensive pairs – P.K. Subban & Josh Gorges in ’11 and Karl Alzner and John Carlson in ’12 – have shut down the Krejci, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton line in the past. It’ll be interesting to see if Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf will do the same. Although the scoring stats don’t show it, the Bruins have more depth this year and could juggle that line if the Leafs are gaining an edge. Remember, the Bruins could easily shift Jaromir Jagr, Seguin or Brad Marchand up the lineup if need be.
The same doubts about reliability fall on Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference. While Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg should be able to contain Kessel and his linemates, the Boychuk-Ference pair has looked less than 2011-caliber down the stretch of this season. It’s not like Ference and Boychuk were unbeatable even in the ’11 Cup run. Whatever combination of Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, Nikolai Kulemin and others make up the Leafs’ second line could exploit the poor decision-making and lack of mobility on Boston’s second pair.
In the special teams department, the Bruins’ power play has continued on its historically horrid pace. There’s no reason to believe that will change against the Leafs’ second-ranked penalty kill. However, I don’t expect Boston’s late-season penalty-killing struggles to continue against the Leafs’ 14th-ranked power play. Boston’s penalty killers thrive when there’s a lot on the line.
So I expect a long series, and we know there will be bodies piling up along the way. Injuries could play a role in this series, as could potential Game 1 healthy scratches Dougie Hamilton and Rich Peverley for Boston, and whoever sits out among Toronto’s many candidates for its third pair on defense.
Typically a four seed vs. a fifth seed is a “pick ‘em” series. The Bruins’ pedigree has many decorating them as favorites. I would tend to agree.
So I begrudgingly pick the home team:
Bruins over Toronto in 7.