The Bruins head into their playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs as the experienced favorite. They should take care of the best-of-seven series in, at most, six games.
Statistically, Boston’s strengths and Toronto’s weaknesses mesh together to give the Black and Gold an advantage in their first Original Six playoff meeting since 1974. But there's a reason they play the games out rather than have two mathematicians stare each other down with calculators in hand.
With that in mind, here are five keys to the Bruins getting a series victory against the Maple Leafs:
1) Make it physical and nasty, and get to it early. The Bruins have struggled in playoff series when teams have played a solid, gritty, clean game that is long on work ethic, and short on short fuses. Playoff teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and the Washington Capitals have refused to poke the bear in the cage early in the series, and that has put the Bruins into early deficits in the series as they try to work themselves into a postseason frenzy. That shouldn’t be a problem against the Maple Leafs, who boast some tough customers in Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren that play regularly along with the hard-hitting Dion Phaneuf who isn’t exactly well-liked in the Boston dressing room. The Leafs led the NHL with 1,626 hits while the Bruins finished tenth with an even 1,200 hits so it should be a physical series based on Toronto looking to set the physical tone. That will engage the Bruins early, and should get them right into the series.
2) Jaromir Jagr needs to put on a show on the power play. The Bruins were pretty miserable again this season while ranking 26th in the NHL with a 14.8 percent success rate on the power play. It’s pretty clear that the man advantage is never going to be an overwhelming strength for the Black and Gold, and they were 3-for-23 (13 percent success rate) on the man advantage in the 11 games Jagr played for the Bruins during the regular season. The Bruins and their 41-year-old winger need to be better when he’s out on the power play. He’ll be skating with Chris Kelly and Kaspars Daugavins during five-on-five play so he won’t be getting the kind of chances to make plays that he will with more highly skilled offensive players on the man advantage. Though the Bruins won a Stanley Cup with a meager power play two years ago, Jagr must find a way to make things electric on the PP because it doesn’t appear like lightning is going to strike twice.
3) Tuukka Rask needs to keep playing like he’s being pushed by his backup. Rask clearly raised his game a notch when Anton Khudobin had strong back-to-back games at the end of March; he finished the month of April with a .941 save percentage in 11 games played. Despite Rask's gaudy save percentage he finished with a 4-5-1 record, which pointed toward some of the offensive shortcomings the Bruins were experiencing down the stretch. Given the fragile state of their offensive confidence and how much the team’s system is built on a goalie stopping at least 93 percent of the shots he faces, Rask must be a dominant force for the Bruins in order for them to have the requisite time to find their Big Bad identity that was misplaced during the regular season.
4) Play time is over for Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and David Krejci. I leave Nathan Horton out of this mix because he hasn’t been signed to a lucrative contract extension in the last two years, and I leave Patrice Bergeron out of the mix because I fully believe he empties the effort bucket every single game. But the rest of the top-six forwards mentioned were sporadic in their effort levels over the last couple of months, and are getting paid like players that should be counted on to give 100 percent every single time out. Peter Chiarelli was asked about the pressure that goes along with signing a big contract, and gave a thoughtful, honest answer: “Generally, I would say when someone signs a big extension there is pressure whether they admit it or not. It puts you in a different stratosphere. And you know what, you can say that about all these guys that got extensions. [Brad] Marchand and [Tyler] Seguin got extensions and both have had levels of performance that have been good at times, and like the rest of the team, just okay at times. There is pressure when you sign those extensions, and Milan [Lucic] is no different than the rest of them.” It’s this reporter’s belief that the players about to begin cashing in on big contract extensions have suffered a case of complacency this season when challenged by the rigorous schedule. They won the Cup two years ago and they’ve been richly rewarded, and clearly the hunger wasn’t consistently there during the regular season. Now the Bruins need to go out and produce offensively and begin to earn those big deals that were handed out by the organization just prior to the lockout. If all of Boston’s best forwards can live up to their salaries, then the B's will be in good shape indeed.
5) Don’t stray from what’s worked against the Leafs. Zdeno Chara has been able to sufficiently bottle up and frustrate Phil Kessel while intimidating him into three goals and a minus-22 in 22 career games against his former Bruins team. Kessel was never the bravest of souls when he was with the Bruins, and rarely strays into the danger areas in the corners or in front of the net when he’s playing against the Black and Gold. That takes him right out of the flow offensively and limits the scoring chances for a player who has been outscored by only six players in the past four regular seasons.
• Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay 185
• Alex Ovechkin, Washington 152
• Corey Perry, Anaheim 129
• Patrick Marleau, San Jose 128
• Jarome Iginla, Cgy/Pgh 121
• Ilya Kovalchuk, Atl/NJ 120
• Phil Kessel, Toronto 119
Beyond Kessel, it will also be about the Bruins attacking Dion Phaneuf, who has been shaky against the Bruins when utilized as a shutdown defenseman at the top of the D-men pairings. That has allowed the Bruins’ top forwards to have a field day against the Leafs in recent years, and has left Phaneuf as a minus-12 against the Bruins in two years' worth of divisional games. Clearly Toronto is better and there are other players who play with those two franchise skaters to mask some of their weaknesses. But both Kessel and Phaneuf also still rank as players that can be exploited by Boston. If the Bruins can do that they’ll enjoy the same kind of success against Toronto in the playoffs.