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Series preview: Leafs, Bruins promises to be close, emotional

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

The long and storied history between the Maple Leafs and Bruins adds an emotional element to their first-round playoff series, but make no mistake, this is an entirely new chapter. Toronto is bringing its most successful regular-season squad ever, while Boston has retooled much of the roster that led them to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011 and a Cup Final appearance two years later.

The Original Six clubs both have depth and skill that make them the envy of many NHL teams, and it's likely that the series goes long regardless of who winds up moving on to the second round. Here is a breakdown of the Bruins' and Leafs' lineups, special teams, and more:

GOALTENDING: The Leafs have a solid and dependable duo of starter Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney, and their skaters leaned on both goalies to help them through games in which they were outshot and on their heels. Andersen set a new Buds franchise record with a career-best 38 wins, while McElhinney put up an 11-5-1 mark playing mostly the second game of back-to-back matches and filling in on occasion when Andersen was out of the lineup with an injury. Andersen has a lifetime 10-1-0 record, a .935 save percentage and a 2.09 goals-against average against the Bruins, but again, past results may not be an indication of who'll have the edge here.

At the Bruins' end, Tuukka Rask rebounded from a slow start to the season to post a 34-14-5 mark, a 2.36 G.A.A. and a .917 SP. He's backed up by fellow veteran Anton Khudobin, who went 16-6-7. Rask came on strong in the second half of the year, while Andersen was at his best from late October through the end of February. Either starter is capable of stealing games on their own, and both will be tested often by the opposition's shooters.

DEFENCE: Toronto's blueliners are a fast, mobile group that is at its best when forcing opponents to take shots from the outside and giving Andersen clear looks and the chance to prevent rebounds. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey have been their most-utilized defenders, all amassing at least 21-and-a-half minutes per game. Gardiner and Rielly also contributed in a big way on offence: both posted career-high seasons of 52 points, and each is capable of jumping into the rush and getting pucks on net.

Hainsey and fellow vets Roman Polak and Nikita Zaitsev pile up penalty kill minutes for the Leafs, while rookie Travis Dermott and Connor Carrick round out Toronto's defence corps.

Meanwhile, the Bruins are still anchored by Zdeno Chara, who led their blueliners with an average of 22:24 per game. Rookie Charlie McAvoy was second among Boston D-men in ice time (22:08), and he was also second on the team in points, with 32. Torey Krug led the Bs in that department with 14 goals and 59 points, and the back end got a boost with the acquisition of former Ranger Nick Holden. Veteran Kevan Miller and sophomore Brandon Carlo also will be depended on by Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.

FORWARDS: Boston's No. 1 line of centre Patrice Bergeron and wingers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is one of the most dangerous in the league. Each of them have at least 30 goals, and the only reason Bergeron didn't reach the 80-point plateau as Marchand and Pastrnak did is because he missed 18 games due to injury. The Bruins have a wealth of depth and experience down the middle, with vets David Backes and David Krejci able to impact a game; and wingers Rick Nash, Riley Nash (no relation), Ryan Donato, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen and Tim Schaller all will get opportunities in this series.

The Leafs' forward unit is fronted by their top line of centre Auston Matthews and wingers William Nylander and Zach Hyman. Matthews was a point-per-game force who has the ability to dominate and create chances out of nowhere; Nylander's defensive game has improved, and Hyman improved on his rookie campaign by amassing 15 goals and 40 points this season. 

However, Toronto's scoring depth is much more spread out than Boston's: five Leafs forwards had at least 50 points this season, while six had at least 20 goals. Winger Mitch Marner was among the most consistent offensive menaces in the NHL in the second half of the year, and he led the team in assists (47) and points (69). He flourished with veteran Nazem Kadri (who posted his second consecutive 32-goal season) and first-year Leaf Patrick Marleau (who registered 27 goals for the second straight year), and thrived on the power play with 27 points.

But it doesn't end there. Longtime linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak also contributed meaningfully: van Riemsdyk led the team with a career-high 36 goals, while Bozak produced 11 goals and 43 points. Second-year NHLer Connor Brown added 14 goals and 28 points, and veteran Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Tomas Plekanec, Matt Martin and Josh Leivo all have aided Toronto's cause.

In sum, Boston's offence comes largely from their top line, while Toronto's comes from throughout the lineup.

COACHES: Leafs bench boss Mike Babcock has a Cup win to his name and 15 NHL seasons under his belt, as well as 150 games of playoff coaching experience. The 54-year-old is a motivator who tries to challenge his group in a positive way. The Bruins are led by Cassidy, who just completed his second full season as an NHL coach and has found a way to keep his team competitive despite a slew of injuries. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Leafs had the league's second-best power play this season at 25 percent efficiency, while the Bruins had the fourth-best man advantage at 23.5 percent. Boston's penalty kill was No. 3 in the NHL (83.7 percent), while Toronto's was tied for eighth (81.8 percent). Babcock often plays four forwards and a blueliner on his power plays; the Bruins' top PP unit also features four forwards and a 'D', but their second unit can include two blueliners.

MISCELLANEOUS: The Leafs are making their second consecutive playoff appearance after pushing the Washington Capitals to six games last spring. The Bruins also lost in the opening round last year, falling to the Senators in six. Toronto posted a 3-1-0 record against Boston in the regular season. The Buds carved out a 29-10-2 home record this year, while the Bs had a 28-8-5 mark in Boston. The Bruins had only two players appear in all 82 games in 2017-18, while Toronto was far healthier - only Matthews (who missed 20 games) and Zaitsev (who was sidelined for 22) missed significant time.

SUMMARY: Boston comes into the series with home ice advantage, but the Leafs have proven themselves capable of winning on the road (20-16-5). The Bruins employ a more physical approach than does Toronto, but Polak and Martin provide the Leafs with some edginess. Any way you cut it, there's not much difference between the two teams. Boston won one more game than the Leafs did this year, and the Bruins stumbled into the post-season with a 5-3-2 record in their final 10 regular-season games. 

Most hockey observers expect this series to last six or seven games, and it's difficult to argue with that. In any case, the showdown should be thrilling, and will add another colourful chapter to an already-incredible rivalry.

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