The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs have been exchanging shots, goals and big hits since the start of the NHL. This week, they'll be at it again.
The Bruins' loss Sunday dropped them to fourth in the Eastern Conference, where they'll open a Stanley CUp Playoff series against their Original Six rival, the fifth-seeded Maple Leafs. It's the 14th time they're facing off in the postseason, the first time since 1974.
The teams were separated by five points in the standings -- coincidentally, the same number of goals that separated them in four meetings this season.
The Bruins won three of the four regular-season games, but two wins were by one goal, with one coming in a shootout. Boston swept the two games at TD Garden: a 1-0 win Feb. 2 and the shootout win March 25. The Bruins' other victory, March 7 at home, was a one-goal game until an empty-net goal with 15 seconds remaining.
The Maple Leafs' one victory in the series was, of course, by one-goal March 23 in Toronto.
The teams enter looking for postseason redemption. The Bruins, one season after winning the Stanley Cup, were eliminated in the first round by the Washington Capitals.
For the Maple Leafs, it's their first time in the postseason since losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the 2004 playoffs. That's nearly a decade's worth of pent-up energy waiting to be let loose.
Nazem Kadri has been one of the League's most pleasant surprises of the season, as he finally made good on the potential the Maple Leafs saw when they selected him with the No. 7 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.
Kadri has been shown the ability this season to be consistent (save for a scoring slump earlier this month) and handle the pressure of being a difference-maker on a team that was fighting the demons of a long Stanley Cup Playoff drought.
Kadri has helped Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk pace an offense that was among the best during the regular season, even without Joffrey Lupul for an extended period of time because of a fractured forearm. Now he's healthy, making their offense even stronger.
Kessel and van Riemsdyk have flanked Tyler Bozak on the Maple Leafs' top line for most of the season. Kadri has centered the second line, now between Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin.
The Maple Leafs could use more production from Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, and if they get going the Maple Leafs will create even more matchup problems.
Leo Komarov has played a physical role, and the fourth line of Jay McClement, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren is one of the more physical, in-your-face, pugilistic fourth lines in hockey.
Matt Frattin has the potential to be a scorer but has struggled since the middle of March.
The Boston Bruins possess one of the deepest and most well-balanced fleet of forwards in the NHL. As a result, they can provide matchup nightmares for teams that are constructed similarly.
You want scoring lines? Boston has two of them, featuring elite offensive players Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand and the aging, but still potent, Jaromir Jagr, who had nine points in 11 games after arriving at the NHL Trade Deadline from the Dallas Stars.
You want a checking line? Boston has one of those, anchored ably by Daniel Paille, which combines speed and tenacity in the defensive zone with the ability to turn up the heat on the attack in the right circumstances.
Energy? Boston has one of the best tempo-changing lines in hockey when Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell climb over the boards and start playing the body in all three zones. Coach Claude Julien loves to use this line when he feels a game is getting away from his team.
Boston's strength at forward is up the middle, which often can be an integral part of Stanley Cup Playoff success. Bergeron and Krejci are among the best two-way centers in the game.
The depth is so pronounced that 15 forwards scored at least one goal during the regular season, and seven topped double digits.
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf has been one of the more dynamic blueliners in the League this season.
Phaneuf, who pairs with Carl Gunnarsson, plays more than 25 minutes a game, including more than three minutes each on the penalty kill and the power play. These hardly are wasted minutes by Phaneuf, who plays against the opposition's best forwards for most of his time and is dangerous on both ends of the ice, particularly from the point on the power play because of his heavy, accurate shot.
Gunnarsson plays well next to Phaneuf, but the Maple Leafs do have some leaks on their blue line, which is why general manager Dave Nonis addressed it at the NHL Trade Deadline by acquiring stay-at-home defenseman Ryan O'Byrne.
The Maple Leafs need O'Byrne to be consistent and Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles, offensive players, to be a bit more careful. Toronto gives up a lot of shots on goal, but the true measure will be if it can keep the scoring chances down. Avoiding unnecessary risk will be important.
Mark Fraser had a solid season, and Jake Gardiner always is interesting to watch because he's under the microscope when he plays and the organization is questioned when he doesn't.
Any time a team can roll out a perennial Norris Trophy candidate for close to 25 minutes a game, much of the defensive game plan will take care of itself. The Bruins have just such a luxury, captain Zdeno Chara, a 15-season veteran with more than 100 games of experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
However, the Bruins' blue line goes much deeper than that. Veteran Dennis Seidenberg is one of the most underrated defenders in the game today, able to mesh well with different partners and eat up a ton of high-impact minutes. Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference provide a fair bit of physicality and are veterans of Boston's taxing march to a title in 2011.
A veteran-heavy group, the Bruins injected some youth into the rotation this season with prized prospect Dougie Hamilton, who is 19 years old. Hamilton has proven to be a quick learner on the offensive side of the puck, but the questions surrounding his ability to handle the increased skill level and intensity of playoff hockey may well shape Boston's postseason.
The Bruins have had trouble scoring goals at times, but their defense has done its part. Every defenseman who played at least 20 games this season has at least one goal.
Nonis unofficially anointed James Reimer as the Maple Leafs' No. 1 goalie when he chose not to trade for a veteran (Roberto Luongo) at the deadline.
Reimer, who is backed up by Ben Scrivens, has answered well. He recently gave up five goals to the New York Islanders, but overall Reimer was at his best while helping the Maple Leafs secure a playoff berth with a week to spare in the season.
He seems comfortable in his role and in handling a large amount of shots, which he gets on almost a game-to-game basis.
In addition, it appears at least for now that Reimer, a small-town guy from Manitoba, has the proper makeup to deal with being the No. 1 goalie in the No. 1 position of scrutiny in the NHL's most media-driven market.
However, Reimer has not played a postseason game since 2009, with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL.
Tim Thomas backstopped the Bruins to their Stanley Cup in 2011. Now, his backup during that run, Tuukka Rask, will be counted on to be the team's backbone this spring
Rask, 26, played 13 postseason games in 2010 -- while Thomas was sidelined with an injury -- and showed he was ready for the bright spotlight of the playoffs. Now he gets his chance to be the No. 1 in Boston.
His body of work this season -- worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration for sure -- suggests he is again prepared to assume that mantle. In 14 games before the playoffs, Rask allowed more than two goals six times.
Boston's backup, Anton Khubodin is a rookie without any NHL playoff experience. He has been good in a relief role this season, posting a 2.32 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
Randy Carlyle was hired to do exactly what he's done so far with the Maple Leafs: Get them into the playoffs. Now Carlyle's experience comes into play -- he won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and went to the playoffs in five of his six full seasons with the Anaheim Ducks.
Carlyle is demanding, but the Maple Leafs have responded, and resemble their coach with their tough, physical and in-your-face style of play.
Toronto's most dramatic area of improvement under Carlyle has been on the penalty kill, which went from one of the worst in the League last season to one of the best this season.
Julien is one of the more accomplished coaches in the NHL, and has a Stanley Cup championship on his resume.
During that run, Julien seemingly made all the right decisions and used his preternatural calmness to guide the Bruins through three Game 7s, as well as an improbable comeback from an 0-2 deficit against the Vancouver Canucks in the Final.
Julien has an incredible feel for his roster, and the core remains virtually intact from the Stanley Cup run two years ago.
The Maple Leafs' penalty kill has been exceptional this season after finishing 28th in the NHL last season at 77 percent. When Toronto went 9-1-4 from March 16 through April 15, its penalty kill was 42-for-44 and didn't allow any power-play goals in seven straight games (5-1-1).
McClement has excelled in his role as the Maple Leafs' top penalty-killing forward, averaging more than 3:30 per game.
Toronto has done enough damage on the power play to win the special teams battle this season by a landslide. The power play finished in the middle of the pack, converting at over 18 percent.
Kessel in particular has been dangerous, and Phaneuf and Franson have provided a dangerous offensive threat from the point.
Boston won the Cup two years ago with an anemic power play -- its 11.4 percent conversion rate was the worst of any of the teams that advanced past the first round. It looks like the Bruins will have to navigate the playoffs again without the ability to exploit disciplinary lapses of opponents -- their power play finished 26th in the League.
The Bruins, however, believe the acquisition of Jagr will lead to an improvement.
But as bad as the power play has been this season -- and really for the past few seasons -- the team's prowess on the penalty kill has eased some of that pain. It is more of the same this season; Boston finished fourth in the League at 87.1 percent.
Mikhail Grabovski: It might be asking too much from Grabovski to turn his season around in the playoffs considering this is his first visit to the NHL postseason. However, there's no denying the talent Grabovski has, and if he can find some confidence early in the series he could become a dangerous player. It's all going to depend on the trust Carlyle has in him and how Grabovski plays in Game 1. Grabovski has to give Carlyle a reason to want to play him and to want to trust him.
Jaromir Jagr: Jagr may not have been Boston's first choice as savior; the Bruins thought they had a deal for Jarome Iginla, who instead went from the Calgary Flames to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now, though, the Bruins feel Jagr is the ideal fit. His offensive skill allows Julien to balance his lines and put forwards in the slots to match their skills. But the proof will come in the games. For a team that struggles to score goals, it will need Jagr to be the offensive dynamo that has defined much of his NHL career.
WHAT IF …
Maple Leafs will win if … Reimer is on his game and the Maple Leafs continue to give him some goals to work with. As solid as Reimer has been down the stretch, Toronto doesn't want to rely on him to save the day in the playoffs. That might be too much for him at this stage of his career. Kessel, Kadri, van Riemsdyk and Lupul have to score, and the Maple Leafs likely will need MacArthur and Grabovski to contribute at some point if they're going to win the series.
Bruins will win if … They win the special-teams showdown. Boston doesn't need to get a ton of power-play goals, but the Bruins need to limit such goals from the opposition. Simply, during 5-on-5 play, perhaps only the Penguins in the East are deep enough to compete with the Bruins across a long series.
Author: NHL.com Staff