After splitting a home-and-home series with the Boston Bruins in October, the Beantowners arrive tonight for a rematch with the Leafs at Air Canada Centre.
Curtis Joseph hung a 2-0 shutout on the Bruins in the teams' first meeting, as the Leafs' netminder recorded his 32nd career shutout and his 14th in a Leafs uniform, tying Ed Chadwick on the all-time list. Two nights later, Corey Schwab made his Leafs debut and stopped 30 of 32 shots but lost 2-1 in overtime on a goal by Joe Thornton just 12 seconds into the extra session with the Leafs a man short.
But it was a different Boston team that night. General manager Mike O'Connell had pulled the trigger on a big deal with the Los Angeles Kings the day before the rematch, dispatching disgruntled holdout Jason Allison to the Kings in exchange for former Bruins Jozef Stumpel and Glen Murray. Murray had gotten off to a great start in L.A., scoring four power-play goals and six overall. Stumpel, a clever playmaker, had gotten off to a mediocre start. Mikko Eloranta, a checking forward, was also part of the deal, joining Allison in Los Angeles.
Both Stumpel and Murray will have to be big-time offensive contributors to make up for the loss of one of the premier centres in the National Hockey League. Last year, Allison had 36 goals and 95 points, including 11 power-play markers. The addition of the two former Kings will make the Bruins a much deeper hockey club when healthy.
The Bruins will look to their first line for much of their scoring. Joe Thornton, the No. 1 pick overall in 1997 from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, has taken over as the leader of this team. Coach Robbie Ftorek will flank Thornton with Sergei Samsonov, Bill Guerin or Murray and expect that line to carry much of the offensive load.
Thornton had a breakout year last season, with 37 goals and 71 points, but did it in the No. 2 slot behind Allison, who got most of the attention. Thornton will find things more difficult now with other teams putting their top defensive pairing out against them on most shifts.
Guerin was a 40-goal scorer last season and came to the Bruins from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Anson Carter. He struggled in the early going this year, possibly missing Allison more than anyone else. Guerin scored just three times in the first 14 games for the Bruins, a pace that would net him just 19 goals this year. Murray, on the other hand, is on a 50-goal pace and is having his best year ever.
The Bruins' back end is a big concern to the organization. They haven't been able to replace the offence generated by Ray Bourque, even by committee. The Bruins lack a power-play quarterback and so Brian Rolston, a forward, has worked back there.
Kyle McLaren, who was out for 24 games a year ago with a knee injury, missed the first part of the season with a thigh muscle problem. He's the Bruins' best defenceman by a long shot but not a big offensive threat. Last year in 58 games, McLaren had five goals and 12 assists. Don Sweeney, Sean O'Donnell, Hal Gill and Jarno Kultanen round out the defensive brigade but none is what you would call an offensive threat.
Rookie Nick Boynton had big numbers in junior hockey and 33 points as a first-year pro in Providence of the American Hockey League but it's a lot to expect him to blossom quickly as the Bruins' trigger man from the defence position.
Making the post-season hinges on one major item for the Bruins - the wonky knee of goaltender Byron Dafoe. So far, it has held up and the Bruins' decent start in the Northeast Division is a direct result of steady and reliable goalkeeping.
Dafoe had a marvellous season in 1998-99, registering a 1.99 goals-against average and 10 shutouts in posting a 32-23-11 record. In the past two seasons, he's 35-30 and 17. The Bruins need 60 to 70 quality starts out of Dafoe this year.
Joe Bowen is the voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs on MOJO Radio and during the Leafs' mid-week telecasts.