Wednesday marked perhaps the best day of the year for hockey fans. The start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs always brings an unmistakable buzz, which only grows once the pucks drop and heart rates skyrocket. Bruins fans, however, have to wait past the first night to get that kind of juice out of their own team.
Game 1 takes place on Thursday at TD Garden between Boston and the fast, explosive Toronto Maple Leafs. On paper, the series looks like it’ll be a barn-burner. Both teams have plenty of speed and offensive firepower, so this could often be a frenetic, end-to-end affair. The kind of hockey where you literally can’t take your eyes off the screen and even blinking is a little questionable.
The Bruins and Leafs have the personnel to deliver the best kind of playoff action, especially if the goaltenders put on a show. They aren’t without questions entering the series. The Bruins, in particular, need the good Rick Nash to show up. Tuukka Rask is the better goalie than Frederik Andersen, and needs to play like it. And their top line needs to play like the elite three-zone threat that it’s been for most of the season.
So, with that out of the way, here are some quick keys to the game that should be at the top of your mind for Game 1 of Bruins-Leafs…
1. Can Leafs Slow Down Bruins’ Top Line?
The Bruins and Maple Leafs are the only two teams in the league with three 30-goal scorers. Boston has all three on the top line.
Still, Brad Marchand needs to improve upon his recent playoff struggles – one goal in his last 18 games. Patrice Bergeron needs to keep doing what he’s done when he’s been in the lineup, if not better. And David Pastrnak has to prove that he can take his game to another level.
2. Strong Start For Leafs, Strong Finish For Bruins
The Bruins did have a lot of thrilling comebacks this season, but can they afford to keep doing it in the playoffs? The B’s led the league with a .467 win percentage when their opponents score first (21-18-6). Toronto, meanwhile, finished eighth in the same category – and played far better early. In the first period, the Leafs tied for the league lead with a plus-25 goal differential.
The Bruins were only plus-3 in the first, which belies their many slow starts that ultimately led to some comeback wins. The B’s were also second in the league with a plus-38 goal differential in the third period (compared to plus-15 for the Leafs). So if the Bruins can get a strong start, especially out of Tuukka Rask, they could make a major swing in these games. Which brings us to the next topic…
3. Which Goalie Blinks First?
Tuukka Rask undoubtedly has excellent career playoff stats. Some of the best ever, in fact. But he’s also had these … moments. Some bad endings that haven’t been all his fault, but haven’t been easy to forget either. Rask still needs to get that ring as the Bruins’ starter. And the Leafs are going to have their chances, so the Bruins will need him to come up with some big saves at certain points in this series.
At the other end is Frederik Andersen, who’s often been leaned on behind Toronto’s leaky defensive corps. The Leafs have been one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing pressure and opportunities to the opposition, so the Bruins should have plenty of their own scoring chances. Ultimately, Toronto needs Andersen more than Boston needs Rask – and Andersen may need to do cartwheels for seven straight games.
4. Battle At The Faceoff Dot
As detailed in a story for 985TheSportsHub.com and on the “Extra Ice Time” podcast for the Sports Hub Hockey Show, Mike Babcock and the Leafs have found a bit of a work-around for their struggles in their own end. It starts where literally every play starts: at the faceoff circle.
Babcock meticulously matches up his personnel when taking defensive zone faceoffs, which has allowed Toronto to limit the damage on defense. It will be key for Bruce Cassidy to overcome Babcock’s tactics and for the Bruins to sustain offensive pressure when on the attack.
5. Rick Nash’s Return
The one question that every Bruins fan should ask about Rick Nash: how many goals would satisfy you? One every game or two probably isn’t happening. So would every 3-4 games be good enough? Either way, Boston brought Nash to put the puck in the net, and do it this time of year. He’ll need to do it at a better rate than he has at times in his playoff career.
Nash has become a better two-way player in recent years and is physically built to withstand the grind of the postseason, and he also has a perfect fit with linemates David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. The opportunity is there for Nash to deliver his best playoff yet, and shake off those demons from New York.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.