One of the great things about the NHL playoffs is how much more important matchups become. Perhaps the best matchup in the entire first round will take place in this series, as Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, far and away the best two-way center in the game, takes on the talismanic Auston Matthews of Toronto. Watching these two hockey geniuses potentially go head-to-head for seven games is a mouth-watering proposition.
Boston Bruins (-145) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (+125)
Game 1: Thursday, April 12, Toronto at Boston, 7 p.m., NBCSN
Game 2: Saturday, April 14, Toronto at Boston, 7 p.m., NBC
Game 3: Monday, April 16, Boston at Toronto, 7 p.m., NBCSN
Game 4: Thursday, April 19, Boston at Toronto, 7 p.m., NBCSN
*Game 5: Saturday, April 21, Toronto at Boston, TBD
*Game 6: Monday, April 23, Boston at Toronto, TBD
*Game 7: Wednesday, April 25, Toronto at Boston, TBD
Injuries: The Bruins will be without defenseman Brandon Carlo for the entire series, which is a big blow. Middle-six forward Riley Nash is a good bet to miss the first game, but his status isn’t clear yet. Toronto has no real injury concerns.
Market Watch: This series opened at Boston -165/Toronto +145, which means some money clearly came in on the Buds.
Setting the Stage: Toronto finished fourth in the East with 105 points. Its reward? No home-ice advantage in the first round against Boston and then a potential date with Tampa in the second. Some playoff format we got here, eh?
The Leafs took three of four from the Bruins in the regular season. Ironically, they lost the only meeting that Matthews played in. If the Leafs can steal one of the first two on the road, the Bruins could be in trouble against a Toronto team in the midst of a 16-2 stretch on home ice.
Boston is the only team in the postseason that ranks in the top five in both special teams units (power play and penalty kill). Only three other teams rank in the top 10 in both: Jets, Devils and Avalanche (all made the playoffs). Notice I didn’t mention the Leafs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t possess strong special teams units. Toronto finished the regular season with the second-best power play and a PK that ranked just outside the top 10 at No. 11 in the league.
This will mark the first postseason meeting between these two clubs since the infamous Toronto collapse in 2013. For those who don’t remember (or for those in Toronto who have successfully blocked that series from their memory), the Leafs blew a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 before falling in overtime. — Stuckey
The Numbers Do The Talkin’: Excuse me while I wax about the Boston Bruins’ underlying stats. The Bruins are, and have been for years, the crème de la crème of the NHL when it comes to peripheral numbers. Boston is the best team in the league at limiting both shot attempts and scoring chances at even strength. The Bruins also rank second at driving play, and sit in the top 10 in creating scoring chances. Their numbers are even more impressive when you consider all of the injuries (and dumb suspensions to Brad Marchand) they’ve battled all season. This team is a legitimate threat to win the Cup
Although I think the Leafs’ overall record is a bit flattering — Toronto was very good in shootouts and got unexpected lights-out goaltending from its backup goaltender, neither of which matter in the playoffs — they are no slouches. Toronto has enough high-end talent with the likes of Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and William Nylander to advance even if the Bruins do control play for a majority of the series. Even if you limit their puck possession, the Leafs will still create good scoring chances. This shows in their advanced metrics, as they have an elite Expected Goals For per 60, despite a middle-of-the-road Corsi For %. (Corsi For % is a barometer for possession that measures the amount of Shot Attempts For vs. shot attempts allowed, also known as CF%.)
The numbers really tell an interesting story in this battle, but I think Toronto’s inability to limit scoring chances will ultimately burn them against Boston. Toronto ranks near the bottom of the barrel in expected goals against per 60, and they are in the bottom 10 in scoring chances against per 60. That’s a recipe for disaster against the Bruins. — Michael Leboff
Goaltending: This is where Toronto has the ability to make up ground.
Because of the Leafs’ inability to limit scoring chances, they have leaned heavily on goaltender Frederik Andersen this season. And he’s certainly answered the bell. The Great Dane posted a 92.4 even-strength save percentage and a 10.25 Goals Saved Above Average (the number of goals saved at 5v5 compared to a hypothetical league average goaltender, also known as GSAA). Given the Leafs’ defensive inefficiencies and Boston’s ability to generate scoring chances, Andersen will need to be razor sharp for Toronto to have a chance. He certainly has the ability to steal a series.
Opposite Andersen will be Tuukka Rask, a former 2005 first-round pick of the Leafs. Rask had another solid, if not overwhelming, year in Beantown. The 31-year-old netminder posted a 92.3 even-strength save percentage. When you compare that to his 92.9 expected save percentage, Rask basically performed just how you’d expect this year. No more, no less.
Neither goalie shined down the stretch, but Andersen is the more likely of the two to stand on his head and pull the carpet out from under all of us. — Michael Leboff
Did You Know?: Andersen is 10-1 against the Bruins in his career, making them his most profitable opponent. As a member of the Leafs, the Danish gatekeeper has a 6-1 record, which makes him the Bruins’ least profitable opposing goaltender over the past two seasons. — Evan Abrams
Player to Watch (Boston): In both DFS and betting markets, there’s value in targeting goaltenders on great defenses, as fewer scoring chances will obviously lead to a much greater chance of a win. Only Carolina allowed fewer shots per game than Boston (29.3), which also surrendered the fourth-fewest goals per game (2.57). Rask was a big part of that defensive success, but notably, his .917 save percentage (SV%) only ranks 19th among goalies with 25 or more starts. The battle of Rask vs. Toronto’s high-flying offense (third-most goals per game) is a clear focal point of this series. — Joe Holka
Player to Watch (Toronto): Over Toronto’s last 10 games, van Riemsdyk is the only player in the top 25 of the entire league for high-danger scoring chances (HDSC). He is also the only Maple Leaf to end the regular season in the 99th percentile in shots over the past month, which isn’t too surprising given his high use on the power play (97th percentile power-play shots). In a true battle of Boston’s defense against Toronto’s offense, the performance of van Riemsdyk, who flies under the radar a little bit thanks to Matthews, could be a crucial factor in determining the winner of this series. — Joe Holka
Why Boston Should Win: The Bruins can advance by simply sticking to their successful formula: Drive play, control scoring chances and let their top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak do its thing. While that line will be tasked with keeping Matthews at bay, the B’s have great depth behind them. The Bruins have an underrated middle-six that includes David Backes, Rick Nash and a pair of up-and-comers in Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen. Toss in promising rookie Ryan Donato, who accumulated nine points in his first 12 games, and there’s a real chance the Bruins will make life miserable for a shallow Leafs defense. — Michael Leboff
Why Toronto Can Win: Toronto’s best chance at winning this puppy is to get backpage-worthy goaltending from Andersen. Outside of that, the Leafs can take advantage of the back end of the Bruins’ defense. Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara are three very good rearguards, but the Leafs’ forwards can win the battle against the bottom of the B’s blueline, especially if they play Adam McQuaid over Matt Grzelcyk on the third pair. If the Buds, who had the second-best shooting percentage (9%) in the league, can create enough chances against the few weak links on the Boston roster, that could give Andersen all he needs to push the Leafs through. — Michael Leboff
Betting Value: There was no value either way when this number first opened, but now it’s in range to take a shot on Boston. (Just shop around for the best number, please.) I’ve been high on the Bruins’ chances to win the Cup all year (I have a preseason future on the B’s) and still think they’ll get out of the East. Going by the current price of -145, you’d need to be convinced that Boston wins this series at least 60% of the time, which I do. — Michael Leboff
Leboff – Boston in 5
Stuckey: Toronto in 7
Holka – Toronto in 7