TORONTO (Apr. 11) — When you think about it, there is no particular reason for the Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs to lose four times in a seven–game segment. Yet, one of the teams will do just that in the opening round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs; the series beginning Thursday night at the TD Garden.
Boston finished fourth in the overall National Hockey League standings with a 50–20–12 record for 112 points, a 17–point improvement over last season and its third–highest total since 1977–78. No club fared better since Dec. 18, as the Bruins were 35–10–7 in their last 52 games (which included a 1–3–1 mark to end the schedule). Toronto placed seventh in the overall standings with a 49–26–7 ledger, establishing club records for wins and points (105). It marked a 10–point improvement over last season and a 36–point rise from 2015–16, when the Maple Leafs finished in the NHL cellar. Toronto scored 277 goals, its highest total since 1992–93 (288). It yielded 232 goals — lowest in a full, 82–game schedule since 2003–04 (204).
Each club played 11 segments of seven games (plus five more to end the season). Boston did not lose more than three games in any–such duration. Only once during the entire schedule (Nov. 4–18) would the Bruins have lost a best–of–seven playoff round, going 2–4–1 (which included a 4–1 home setback to the Leafs on Nov. 11). Toronto would have lost a best–of–seven series only once in their seven–game segments: Oct. 21–Nov. 2, going 2–5–0. It would have happened again once more during the schedule: Dec. 12–18 when the Leafs were 3–4–0. So, the Maple Leafs and Bruins combined to lose a minimum four of seven games in the Atlantic Division on just three occasions all season. Clearly, something has to give in the playoffs.
Many, today, are recalling the last playoff series between the clubs — the exciting clash of 2013 that famously ended in overtime of Game 7 after Boston had erased a 4–1 third–period lead at home. Patrice Bergeron scored the series–winning goal on James Reimer. Given their allocation in the Atlantic sector and a second playoff meeting in five years, Toronto and Boston are re–developing a long–dormant rivalry. The clubs met in the post–season in 1969, 1972 and 1974, but the Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito were thoroughly dominant, sweeping the best–of–seven rounds while losing just once (on Jim Harrison’s overtime goal at Boston Garden in Game 2 of the ’72 quarterfinals). There is infinitely more parity between the Maple Leafs and Bruins today, which should make for another long, drawn–out affair.
Toronto won three of four encounters during the regular season, which may provide the Leafs some marginal confidence. Otherwise, you can throw that statistic out the window. The Bruins have the edge in muscle and playoff experience. Brad Marchand has been the most–effective two–way forward in the NHL the past two seasons while Bergeron is a perennial Selke Trophy candidate and one of the league’s top face–off men. Zdeno Chara, though not quite the force he used to be at 41 years of age, still looms enormously on the Boston blue line. The Leafs have a small edge in team–speed and a six–pack up front (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Patrick Marleau, William Nylander) that stands alongside any in the league. Logically, this series should be determined by the Bruins’ ability (or lack thereof) to control Toronto’s skilled forwards. With Marchand and Bergeron, I consider it a good possibility.
KEY FIGURES IN THE SERIES WILL BE BRAD MARCHAND (LEFT) AND AUSTON MATTHEWS. SPORTINGNEWS.COM
Without question, goaltending will play a significant role. How does one choose between Tuukka Rask and Frederik Andersen? Rask may have a slight edge; he appeared in 12 fewer games than Andersen this season and could be more rested. His goals–against average was 2.36 compared to 2.81 for Andersen, but Rask faced many fewer shots: 1,513 to 2,211. Save–percentage was a saw–off: .918 for Andersen; .917 for Rask.
Obviously, this series can go either way. Save for a four–game sweep, no result would be an upset. My gut says the Bruins will prevail in seven. But, watch out if the Leafs grab at least one of the first two matches at the Garden. Only Winnipeg (32) and Pittsburgh (30) won more home games than Toronto’s 29 (tied with Vegas) this season. Similar control of the Air Canada Centre could swing the series in favor of the Leafs.
FIRST ROUND PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS:
TAMPA BAY over NEW JERSEY in 6.
WASHINGTON over COLUMBUS in 7.
BOSTON over TORONTO in 7.
PITTSBURGH over PHILADELPHIA in 5.
NASHVILLE over COLORADO in 6.
LOS ANGELES over VEGAS in 6.
WINNIPEG over MINNESOTA in 5.
SAN JOSE over ANAHEIM in 7.
During the exhaustive process of moving from midtown–Toronto to a condominium in the north part of the city (much closer to work), I gathered up a stack of newspapers collected while living near Yonge and Eglinton since July 2013. Nearly five years of mixed memories came flooding back — from the Blue Jays sudden power–move in the second half of the 2015 Major League Baseball season… to the four–goal eruption by Auston Matthews in his NHL debut… and the death, last December, of the Maple Leafs’ most–beloved all-time figure, Johnny Bower. I’ve posted 80–such newspaper images in this photo–essay.
Please have a look at nearly half–a–decade of sports and news history:
FEB. 23, 2014: Canada’s hockey perfection at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
JUNE 13, 2014: Los Angeles Kings win their second Stanley Cup title in three years when defenseman Alec Martinez scores in overtime of Game 5 at the Staples Center, defeating the New York Rangers.
AUG. 10, 2014: Jose Bautista’s base hit in the bottom of the 19th inning at Rogers Centre finally ends the Blue Jays’ longest–ever game. Detroit Tigers were on the losing end.
SEP. 17, 2014: Toronto mayor Rob Ford, after a scandalous term in office, is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that would eventually claim his life.
NOV. 24, 2014: Sadly, though not unexpectedly, former Leafs coach Pat Quinn dies after more than a year–long struggle with a liver ailment. There is an out–poring of emotion in the hockey world.
JAN. 5, 2015: Led by NHL stars of the near–future (Connor McDavid, Max Domi, Brayden Point, Sam Reinhart), Team Canada wins the 2015 World Junior Hockey Championship here in Toronto.
JAN. 6, 2015: Midway through their most demoralizing season of the post–Harold Ballard era (after 1990), the Leafs fire head coach Randy Carlyle and replace him with assistant Peter Horachek.
MAY 20, 2015: After months of speculation, news breaks that the Leafs have lured Mike Babcock to town with an eight–year, $50–million contract — the richest for a coach in NHL history.
MAY 21, 2015: During his introductory press conference at the Air Canada Centre, Babcock famously warns of “pain”… though precious–little is felt during a meteoric rise to Stanley Cup contention.
JULY 1, 2015: On the first day of NHL free agency, the Leafs keep a promise to Babcock by trading Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh. Kasperi Kapanen is the key player coming this way.
JULY 23, 2015: Just more than three weeks after the Kessel trade, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan hires, as general manager, the person that drafted him second overall (from the OHL London Knights) while GM of New Jersey in 1987. Lou Lamoriello would craft three Stanley Cup teams (1995–2000–2003) while running the Devils. Shanahan would score 656 goals in a Hall–of–Fame career.
JULY 30, 2015: After years of frugality and fan apathy, the owner of the Toronto Blue Jays (Rogers Communications) decides to spend some money. The lucrative contracts of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado) and left–handed starter David Price (Detroit) are dealt for in a three–day span prior to the non–waiver trade deadline. Slumbering followers take notice.
SEP. 30, 2015: A first (and only) attempt by Rogers at trying to win pays off. The trade–enhanced Blue Jays go on a 41–18 tear after the Tulowitzki–Price deals; erase a seven–game deficit to the New York Yankees and win their first American League East Division title since 1993. Crowds pack the Rogers Centre. The clinching triumph is a 15–2 rout of the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
OCT. 12, 2015: After starting their first playoff round in 22 years by losing Games 1 and 2 of the American League Division Series at home to Texas, the Blue Jays return the favor in Arlington and deadlock the best–of–five affair, setting up a deciding match at Rogers Centre.
OCT. 14, 2015: Jose Bautista caps the longest and silliest inning in Blue Jays’ playoff history by belting a mammoth, three–run homer in the bottom of the seventh at Rogers Centre; legendarily flips his bat in the air (causing an international incident), and Toronto becomes the first Major League team to rebound from an 0–2 deficit at home and prevail in a best–of–five series. It is the wildest and most memorable playoff game for the ball club since Joe Carter’s walk–off home run against Philadelphia that won the 1993 World Series. Blue Jays advance to the ALCS against Kansas City.
OCT. 19, 2015: On the night Justin Trudeau is elected the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada, the Blue Jays erupt for an 11–8 win over Kansas City in Game 3 of the ALCS before 49,751 at Rogers Centre.
OCT. 23, 2015: After a dramatic, two–run homer by Jose Bautista in the top of the eighth inning, the Blue Jays are eliminated by Kansas City in Game 6 of the ALCS at Kaufman Stadium. Eric Hosmer’s double off Roberto Osuna in the bottom of the eighth scores Lorenzo Cain for the decisive run.
FEB. 2, 2016: Prior to a game against Boston at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs hold a ceremony to honor the 40th anniversary of Darryl Sittler’s 10–point game (6 goals, 4 assists) against the Bruins, at Maple Leaf Gardens, on Feb. 7, 1976. It remains an NHL record for most points in one game. Sittler is re–united with Dave Reece (photo above), the goalie he victimized on that surreal night. The commemoration occurs as the Leafs unveil their new team–logo for the 2016–17 season.
FEB. 6, 2016: Sittler recalls his record–breaking performance in the Toronto Star.
FEB. 9, 2016: The failed Leafs nucleus of Randy Carlyle, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf is dissolved when Lou Lamoriello trades the latter to Ottawa in, primarily, a salary purge.
MAR. 22, 2016: Having battled soft–tissue cancer for 1½ years, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, only 47, succumbs to the disease.
JUNE 4, 2016: The most famous athlete in modern history — heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali — dies at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Syndrome. Again, the world takes notice.
JUNE 24, 2016: Having conveniently “tanked” during the 2015–16 season, Leafs win the NHL Draft Lottery and select American Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick of 2016 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo. Toronto makes the top selection for the first time since drafting Wendel Clark in 1985.
OCT. 4, 2016: Nearly a year after the Jose Bautista bat–flip, Edwin Encarnacion belts a home run to left field in the bottom of the 11th inning at Rogers Centre to win the American League Wild Card Game against Baltimore. The Blue Jays go on to defeat Texas in the A.L. Division Series (on the “Donaldson Dash”) before losing, handily, to Cleveland in the ALCS.
OCT. 12, 2016: No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews stuns the hockey world by scoring a record–four goals in his first NHL game, at Ottawa, but the Maple Leafs lose to the Senators in overtime.
APR. 8, 2017: On the penultimate night of the 2016–17 NHL season, the Leafs defeat Pittsburgh, 5–3, at Air Canada Centre to clinch their first playoff berth in a full, 82–game schedule since 2003–04. A 3–2 loss to Columbus at the ACC the following night sets up an opening–round playoff skirmish with the President’s Trophy–winning Washington Capitals.
APR. 13, 2017: The Capitals win Game 1 at the Verizon Center, 3–2, when Tom Wilson beats Frederik Andersen at 5:15 of the first overtime period. Leafs had led, 2–0, in the opening frame.
APR. 15, 2017: Toronto pulls even on the road when Kasperi Kapanen scores his second goal of Game 2 — at 11:53 of double–overtime — for a 4–3 triumph against the Capitals.
APR. 17, 2017: The overtime trend continues (five of the six games went beyond regulation, tying a Stanley Cup record) in Game 3 at the Air Canada Centre as Tyler Bozak scores a powerplay goal at 1:37 of the first extra period to give Toronto its only lead of the series. William Nylander had knotted the match with 40 seconds left in regulation.
APR. 21, 2017: After winning the lone regulation–time match at the ACC, the Capitals grab a 3–2 lead in the best–of–seven series at home when Justin Williams scores at 1:04 of the first overtime.
APR. 23, 2017: The Maple Leafs’ bounce–back season ends at the Air Canada Centre in Game 6 when Marcus Johansson beats Frederik Andersen at 6:31 of the first overtime period.
NOV. 26, 2017: One of the biggest upsets in Grey Cup history occurs when the 9–9 Toronto Argonauts defeat the 13–4–1 Calgary Stampeders during a snowstorm at TD Bank Stadium in Ottawa. The game turns dramatically with 5:16 left in the fourth quarter when Cassius Vaughn of the Argonauts returns a Calgary fumble 109 yards for a touchdown. Lirim Hajrullahu wins the game, 27–24, by kicking a 32–yard field goal with 53 seconds remaining. Toronto captures its seventh CFL title since 1983.
DEC. 26, 2017: The city of Toronto, and the entire hockey world, is saddened when Leafs’ legend Johnny Bower dies of pneumonia at 93. He is the most–beloved local athlete of all time.