Death, taxes and beating Toronto in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
At least it seems that way as it pertains to the Boston Bruins, doesn’t it? And with good reason.
Boston hasn’t lost a postseason series to the Maple Leafs since 1959. You know, before John F. Kennedy was president, before anyone had heard of the Beatles — before the six-time Super Bowl champion Patriots even had a team.
Since then, the Black-and-Gold have vanquished the Buds five times in the postseason, including twice in the last six seasons with dramatic Game 7 victories at TD Garden. (A quick reminder here that Toronto was a member of the Campbell/Western Conference from 1982-98, meaning they only could’ve met the Bruins in the Cup finals those seasons).
Toronto has since gotten younger, faster, more explosive up front and added one of the game’s premier offensive talents in center John Tavares. But until they can defeat the Bruins — who seemingly live rent free in their heads — when it counts, the Maple Leafs will continue their current 52-year Stanley Cup drought.
So with the puck dropping on Game 1 of their first round series Thursday night in Boston, let’s break down the series into five key categories and where each organization stacks up.
OFFENSE: If the trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak aren’t the No. 1 line in the NHL, they’re on the short list of candidates. With impeccable on-ice chemistry, they work in tandem rushing through the neutral zone and attacking opposing defenses, having combined for 106 goals and 260 points this season. In case you’ve forgotten, they also lit up Toronto in the playoffs a year ago (9 goals, 21 assists).
David Krejci tied his career best for points (73) as the team’s 32-year-old second line center alongside left wing Jake DeBrusk (27 goals). Adding youngster Karson Kuhlman on their right side could bring an interesting mix of speed and spunk. Should Boston chose to deploy bottom six forwards Marcus Johansson-Charlie Coyle-Danton Heinen and Joakim Nordstrom-Noel Acciari-Chris Wagner, that could leave 34-year-old winger David Backes out of the mix to begin the playoffs. The team is hoping to get sparkplug Sean Kuraly back from injury soon, too.
If there’s one thing the speed-laden Maple Leafs have no trouble doing, it’s scoring goals. When Auston Matthews (37 goals, 73 points) is your second line center, you know your team is deep at forward. Right wing Mitch Marner and his team-leading 94 points have been the biggest beneficiary of Tavares’ (47 goals, 41 assists) arrivalwith Zach Hyman holding his own on the left side. Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, both 20-goal scorers, have the speed to skate with Matthews and form a strong trio.
Third line center Nazim Kadri’s points (44) have been trending downward for three years now, but he’s an agitator who’s tough to play against. Ageless left wing Patrick Marleau is still effective and young William Nylander can cause problems on the right side. Trevor Moore, Frederik Gauthier and Connor Brown (8-21-29) know their way around opposing nets as well.
DEFENSE: For the third straight postseason, the Bruins will be without one of their rearguard regulars as Kevan Miller is out for the foreseeable future with what is believed to be a lower body injury. This could allow 23-year-old Connor Clifton into the lineup as a possible sixth defenseman. Captain Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug (47 assists), Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk will be tasked with preventing Toronto’s speed merchants from gaining the zone and charging the Boston net.
The mid-season addition of Jake Muzzin certainly helped shore up Toronto’s back line, where Morgan Rielly (20 goals, 52 assists) is the undisputed lynchpin. The rest of the unit, however, is underwhelming; Ron Hainsey was a plus-30 this year, but could be a turnstile if tasked with stopping Boston’s big line.
GOALTENDING: In Tuukka Rask and Frederik Andersen, you have a pair of netminders who alternately impress and frustrate their respective fan bases. Both can come up with stellar stretches of play where it looks like a grain of salt couldn’t beat them; in other instances, poor play and stoppable shots that find the back of their nets make them easy foils for their followers’ wrath. Rask, however, has the playoff chops that Andersen doesn’t, and should he falter also has a much better backup (Jaroslav Halak) than Andersen does (Michael Hutchinson).
COACHING: The Bruins have won 99 games the past two regular seasons with Cassidy in charge, but are just 7-11 in the playoffs under his watch. There’s more he can cajole out of this team. The pressure of the world — at least the hockey-mad fandom in Ontario — is on Toronto’s Mike Babcock, who came to town as the savior who would lead the organization to its first Cup since 1967 but hasn’t gotten them out of the first round of the playoffs.
INTANGIBLES:While the Maple Leafs are a team built on speed and skill, the Bruins also possess that, plus the physicality that Toronto is lacking. And let’s be honest: do even the most fervent Buds supporters really believe that their favorite franchise — for which playing well in the spring is equivalent to snow falling on the Fourth of July — can finally prevail in a winner-take-all Game 7 in Boston?
PREDICTION: Bruins in six.
Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN