It has taken nine long years and two lockouts, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally back in the playoffs. The question is how long will they get to enjoy it? While the Blue and White certainly have a few things going for them, including two dynamic forward lines and a young goaltender who has spent the past four months etching his way into the ranks of the elite, the Boston Bruins, their first round nemesis, can say many of the same things, and more besides.
The two Original Six combatants, who have locked horns in the playoffs 13 times over the course of history (although not since the Bruins swept the Leafs in the 1974 Quarterfinals) match up again with plenty of storylines at stake.
Toronto Maple Leafs close-game Fenwick: 46.7% (Rank: 28th in NHL)
Boston Bruins close-game Fenwick: 52.6% (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, 5.9%
Instead of focusing on the tiring traditional narratives (the Kessel trade, anyone?), let's look at the vastly different styles of play employed by these two teams. The Bruins are one of the strongest possession teams in the NHL, with the five teams above them all considered among the class of the league (even Detroit). On the opposite end of the spectrum lie the Maple Leafs, whose Fenwick struggles are directly attributable to their teamwide aversion to puck control.
A crude but simple comparison can be made by scanning the giveaway leaders in the NHL. Leaf Dion Phaneuf wears the inglorious crown for the 2013 season, with 53 giveaways (three more than the league runner-up) and three more Leafs are in the top (bottom?) 25. The Bruins, by way of contrast, placed only one man in the top 25. As a team, the Leafs ran away with the league title, coughing up the puck a whopping 405 times, nearly double that of the Bruins and their 220 giveaways. As much noise as there might be in those numbers, their sheer vastness is telling.
Expect the Bruins to handily outshoot the Maple Leafs throughout the series, especially at even strength. That counting stat will be even higher if trade deadline acquisition Ryan O'Byrne dresses for the Leafs over Mike Kostka.
Boston offense vs. Toronto defense
Boston Bruins offense: -0.4 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Toronto Maple Leafs defense: -9.6 GVT (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending: 10.3 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -1.1 GVT
The Bruins do not have a single lynchpin who sets the pace for their entire offensive attack but rather split the bill relatively evenly across the roster, with four players (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin, and David Krejci) all topping 30 points. Deadline pickup Jaromir Jagr and slumping agitator Milan Lucic should round out the top six, although Jagr has often played with Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg since his arrival in Beantown.
Boston's relatively poor offensive GVT is brought down by a poor power play. At even strength, the Bruins have actually been among the strongest teams in the league, with a fourth-best 1.28 GF/GA ratio at five-on-five play. A big portion of the credit is due to the fact that the Bruins have three lines that can score as well as a blue line corps that can push the puck towards the offensive zone and deepen the Boston attack. Led from the back by perennial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara, the B's also received positive offensive contributions from Calder candidate Dougie Hamilton (this is not a snipe at the Kessel trade, we promise), as well as Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference.
While the Leafs give up a boatload of shots (27th overall), they also block as many of them as possible, finishing third in that metric. As Toronto's defensive pairings generally feature one offensive defenseman and one stay-at-home type, expect all six blueliners to receive regular even strength shifts regardless of the opposition. Among forwards, Randy Carlyle has been one of the coaches most likely to lean on a defensive line for crucial own-zone faceoffs. The shutdown trio has most often been Jay McClement, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin. The three were all among the 21 skaters least likely to have an offensive faceoff in 2012-13.
The Maple Leafs' last line of defense is goaltender James Reimer, who proved that last year's struggles were most likely a result of an early season concussion and that his true level of play is that of the rookie who wowed the league in 2011, stopping over 92% of shots at even strength. Although prone to the odd stinker (11 games having surrendered at least four goals), Reimer is also more than capable of standing on his head, with four games of at least 40 saves and four shutouts. If Reimer can keep his team in the series, we can also expect the rumors of Luongo to Toronto to die down once and for all.
Advantage: Shot metrics notwithstanding, this is a push
Toronto offense vs. Boston defense
Toronto Maple Leafs offense GVT: 17.6 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Boston Bruins defense: 7.0 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Boston Bruins goaltending: 14.8 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Toronto Maple Leafs, -4.2 GVT
Although he still does not have a bona fide number one center to feed him the puck, Kessel has managed to establish himself as one of hockey's top snipers since coming over in a trade from Boston four seasons ago. While his 12.4% shooting percentage is enough above his 10.9% career mark to suggest some regression is in the offing, it continues his marksmanship from the previous season, which negates the previous suggestion. Kessel teamed up with offseason acquisition James van Riemsdyk, who (prorated) had the best season of his young career on the Leafs' first line. Tyler Bozak, who missed the last two games of the regular season with an upper body injury, is their usual center.
The second line is centered by this year's biggest breakout story in Nazem Kadri. Although he has slumped badly in April, with only one goal and five points in 12 games, he was a revelation earlier in the year, showing an ability to create offense (and draw penalties, third highest in the league) from nothing. Per GVT, Kadri was the most valuable skater on the squad. He should be flanked by Joffrey Lupulwho scored 11 goals in 16 games in a season marred by a broken forearmand Clarke MacArthur. While the Leafs have other skaters who can score, expect at least 75% of their offense to stem from the top six. That said, Phaneuf and Cody Franson will also play important offensive roles from the blue line, with both ranking among the top 10 in defenseman scoring.
As a team with top flight possession metrics, the Bruins see fewer defensive zone faceoffs than most, but have four reliable blueliners to handle them when starting off in their own end. Led by Chara, the aforementioned Seidenberg and Ference also log the heavier minutes, in addition to more stay-at-home blueliner Johnny Boychuk. Those four also play the toughest competition among the defensemen.
While Toronto has a defensive line among their forwards, Boston leans more towards 200-foot players. Starting with Patrice Bergeron, the reigning Selke Trophy winner is a favorite for the award again, after another exemplary two-way season. Among all players with at least 100 faceoffs taken, Bergeron's 62.1% success rate led the league. Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley, Gregory Campbell, and Daniel Paille are also heavily relied upon for defensive chores. Their combined transition game has been the source of their great possession numbers on a teamwide level.
Boston also has a top netminder in Tuukka Rask; his stellar play has allowed the Bruins to forget about Tim Thomas. Unlike his counterpart from Toronto, Rask is not prone to the blowout, with only five among his 36 games. Rask has a good chance to garner a nomination for the Vezina Trophy, recognition that is due to the Finnish stopper.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Boston power play vs. Toronto penalty kill
Boston Bruins power play: -3.9 GVT (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Toronto Maple Leafs penalty killing: 7.6 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -11.5 GVT
After years ranking among the worst teams at killing penalties in the NHL, new defensive schemes and Jay McClement have combined to push the Maple Leafs' PK to the upper echelon, killing a remarkable 87.9% of penalties on the season. As a rugged team that is not afraid to take the odd minor penalty to dissuade an opponent from taking liberties, a strong penalty kill in a must. In fact, one of Toronto's most likely paths to success in this round is to bully the Bruins incessantly and then kill off the ensuing penalties. While McClement and Phaneuf get the bulk of the shorthanded minutes for Toronto, almost all skaters, barring Kessel, Grabovski, and Kadri, see semi-regular shorthanded shifts.
Coming at the Leafs is the relatively punchless power play of the Bruins, who trailed the league with only 18 power play goals as a team. The inclusion of Jagr may have come too late to affect the team rates on the man advantage, but he should be able to add some additional punch when the Bruins have the extra skater. Pulling the team down has been the toothless play of power play regulars Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, neither of whom exceeded 1.5 power play points per 60 minutes.
Advantage: Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto power play vs. Boston penalty kill
Toronto Maple Leafs power play: 0.0 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Boston Bruins penalty killing: 10.5 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Toronto Maple Leafs, -10.5 GVT
With two of the top four penalty killing units in the game facing off, we can fairly say that goal scoring at even strength will be of added importance in this series. Not only do the Bruins have the best shorthanded GVT in hockey, and the fourth-highest rate of penalty kill success, they have also potted five shorthanded goals, with two each from Brad Marchand and Daniel Paille. As dangerous as those two have been, they are mere bit players in the Bruins' PK machine. Led by the four defensive defensemen mentioned earlier (Chara, Seidenberg, Ference, and Boychuk), Campbell, Bergeron and Kelly also spend at least two minutes game on the penalty kill.
The Toronto power play, on the other hand, is fairly benign, with only Phil Kessel scoring more than five power play goals. While Phaneuf and Franson have been a solid pair on the point, the second unit has been particularly feeble. Like Boston with Horton, the Toronto power play would stand to gain if Bozak is replaced on the first unit by Kadri, who has earned a greater share of the man advantage minutes than he has thus far received.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
The Bruins won three of their four matches against the Maple Leafs, including the final game in the shootout. All four have been relatively low scoring affairs, with the Bruins outscoring the Maple Leafs in regulation by a combined 9-7, with one empty-netter included. Three of the four games saw gloves dropped, but none of the four games could be described as particularly chippy.
After struggling mightily against the Bruins in recent years, the Maple Leafs should be somewhat heartened by their improved play against the B's this season, and their three points were picked up in a home-and-away in late March. On the other hand, the Leafs still managed to be outshot 33-13 in their lone victory and 121-86 combined in the four matches.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
The Bruins were the top faceoff-taking team in the abbreviated year, winning 56.4% of all draws, led by the aforementioned Bergeron. Krejci, Kelly, and Peverley are also very strong faceoff men.
Toronto, in spite of McClement's excellence at the dot, has been decidedly middle-of-the-pack on the whole, winning exactly 50.0% of their faceoffs, tied for 15th in the league. The Leafs' number is a bit deceptive, as Grabovski and Bozak are also above average in the circle. Unfortunately, Kadri, for all his other talents with the puck, is next to hopeless when the puck falls from an official's hand, winning only 44.2% of his draws, bringing the team rank down precipitously.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Injuries and intangibles
Both teams are relatively healthy coming into the playoffs. The Bruins, not counting the long-term post-concussion symptoms that have kept Marc Savard off the ice for over two years, may be without Horton. The Maple Leafs were without Bozak for the last two games of the regular season, but he is expected to be ready for Game 1.
As the term indicates, intangibles are hard to measure. In Boston, we have a team that has very recently won it all, and knows what it will take to win it again. Then again, the same team was only the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead, as they did in the 2010 playoffs, and they were knocked out in seven games last year by Washington.
The Maple Leafs have not seen the postseason in quite a while. That general lack of experience can work against them in the long run, but their coach has led a team to a Stanley Cup parade before and will be sure to have his charges prepared for the grind.
Both teams finished the year poorly, with the Bruins taking only eight of a possible 20 points in their final 10 games. The Leafs managed 11 points in their last 10 games, but their level of play did not earn those points.
Boston Bruins: 24.0 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Toronto Maple Leafs: 12.0 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Total difference: Boston Bruins, 12.0 GVT
The two teams are not as far apart as their recent history suggests, particularly if the Bruins' late season play is indicative of their performance levels. That said, the Maple Leafs are the clear underdog in this series and would do well to keep games close and competitive. James Reimer and a teamwide sniper mentality can only go so far.
Boston Bruins in six games
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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