By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
We’re just a day away from the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs kicking off yet another opening-round series in Boston. For Boston and Toronto, it’s the third time these rivals have met in the first round since 2013, and this rivalry has never been more skilled than it is entering Thursday’s Game 1 at TD Garden.
The Bruins roll into the postseason with 49 wins (third-most in the NHL) this season despite having about a billion injuries — and injuries to key players no less — throughout the regular season. They’re led by the superhuman top line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, David Krejci’s discovery of the Fountain of Youth, and you’ve seen huge Year 2 leaps from Jake DeBrusk and Charlie McAvoy.
The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, only come into this series with NHL superstar John Tavares and two-time Stanley Cup winner Jake Muzzin added to their roster compared to last year’s club that just a third period collapse away from knocking the Bruins out of the postseason on their own ice. You know, just casual things like that.
“Last year is last year,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the rematch. “I think there’s no sense spending any time on that. They have a different team, we have a different team and our guys are growing and they’re going to get older and they’re going to get better. Some of those losses in life, those little hardships are the best things for you, they allow you to grow and make you grow. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to lose and you don’t like the feeling.
“The other thing about it, and I said it here two days ago, is right away eight more teams go home.”
Here are three burning questions entering this sure-to-be-heated round one showdown…
How does Bruce Cassidy handle his net?
Let’s be real: Tuukka Rask has not played well for over a month now. His last start of the regular season, while not worth a Zapruder study, was U-G-L-Y. Nevertheless, the Bruins are entering the postseason with the 32-year-old Rask as their No. 1 goaltender.
It was always going to take an awful lot for Rask not to be the B’s Game 1 starter. He’s the man Cassidy has considered his No. 1 goaltender throughout his ups and downs this year, he’s the man paid the big bucks, and if we’re being honest with ourselves and not resorting to “you gotta trade him for nothing” arguments, he’s the man the Bruins have more invested in down the road. Benching him for Game 1 has never seemed to be a legitimate option for the Black and Gold.
But if Rask struggles — and the Bruins struggle with him — how quickly does Cassidy turn to Jaroslav Halak?
The veteran Halak has been excellent as a breather for the B’s this season. He even appeared to be running away with the starting gig before hitting a January wall (1-3-1 with an .863 in five appearances). Cassidy has made it clear that he’s comfortable going with either goaltender this postseason. It’s also worth mentioning that the last four Stanley Cup winners have rotated goalies to some sort of degree (though they all had bonafide starters when they got to the Stanley Cup Final).
So, let’s just say it’s a true doomsday for the Bruins and Rask’s regular season fade bleeds into the postseason with a 20-of-24 kind of Game 1. It would be hard to imagine Rask getting the nod the next night, as it would mean that we were all in the midst of an undeniable funk for No. 40, and the Bruins almost couldn’t run the risk of heading to Toronto down 0-2. Nor could you run the risk of being down two games to none and then turning to Halak.
That move would give your team — and Halak, specifically — almost no room for error.
The Tavares Factor: How will superstar center change plans?
The disappearance of Auston Matthews was one of the biggest reasons why the Bruins knocked off the Leafs last season. In what was just the second postseason series of his career, Matthews was limited to just one goal on 27 shots on goal and just two points in seven games. You could also read that as the Bruins put Bergeron on Matthews on pretty much every single shift Matthews had out there (Bergeron did miss one game in last year’s first-round series due to an upper-body injury).
The Leafs addressed that problem by adding John Tavares. Not the worst plan.
Forming a one-two punch with Mitch Marner, Tavares scored a career-high 47 goals and 88 points in 82 games for the Leafs this season. The Tavares-Marner duo outscored opponents 85-63 at even-strength this season, and will likely draw a lesser matchup if and when Bergeron’s line goes head-to-head against Matthews.
That, theoretically, should free JT’s line up to do some damage against the Bruins (even if they put the Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy pairing on them), or free Matthews up should Cassidy realize that he needs to put No. 37 and Co. on Tavares.
“We’ve added Tavares, but, to me, that’s the one addition,” Babcock, whose team essentially moved on from Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov to add Tavares to the mix over the summer, admitted. “The addition we’re not talking about is the guys are a year older, they’ve been through it. They understand, they’re better defensively, they know how to play better, they’re more confident.
“But there’s no question that Tavares – he’s done some losing, he’s figured out that it’s not as much fun as winning.”
It’s just another weapon for a Toronto club that’s had no problem scoring at will this season.
Can Bruins get by with this second line?
The Bruins are going for their ‘fastest lineup’ possible, which means Karson Kuhlman will get the nod to the right of Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci on Boston’s second line. Yes, the same Karson Kuhlman with 11 games of NHL experience. The Bruins are not fretting over Kuhlman’s lack of experience, noting that he’s an experienced player at the college level (Kuhlman won a national title with Minnesota-Duluth last spring), and that he’s “unfazed” by moments and chances.
But whether or not this trio works — they played 68 minutes together and scored eight goals together — is going to be a huge factor in this series. If it works, the Bruins have fast-tracked Kuhlman into a legitimate NHLer on the game’s biggest stage.
If Kuhlman fades, though, the Bruins are going to be forced to move Marcus Johansson or Danton Heinen back into their top-six forward group, meaning it’s a left-shot on the right wing, which Cassidy doesn’t seem thrilled with, at least in comparison to what those players can do on their natural left side. And who’s to say if either one of those players sticks, and who’s to say it doesn’t create a rippling effect that impacts a Black and Gold third line that’s going to be incredibly important until the return of Sean Kuraly (expected to come around Game 4 or 5).
Now, it probably doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, as Cassidy loves to jumble his lines to absolute hell at the first sign of danger. It’s simultaneously one of his greatest strengths and weaknesses. But the last thing the Bruins want to do is chase these games (and this series) with an unsorted mess below their top line.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.