Source: Claus Andersen/Getty Images
The Leafs will most likely play the Boston Bruins in the first round. Toronto has lost to the Bruins twice in the playoffs in as many years. With Toronto on the verge of heading to the playoffs for the third straight year unless the Leafs go into collapse mode, Toronto has lost the last three first-round meeting, Boston being responsible for two of them. Can Toronto be able to get through the opening round? The Leafs young core has some playoff experience and signing John Tavares while also acquiring Jake Muzzin. Will it be good enough to beat the big bad Bruins?
The Leafs haven't been playing well as of late. Games against Philadelphia, Chicago and Ottawa recently, Toronto has given up a ton of goals. Frederik Andersen hasn't been himself lately. Andersen has given up some shaky goals in the last few games, and having played 53 games this season (ranked 8th this season) he's showing signs of fatigue. The 29-year-old has played over 60 games in the last two seasons, is potentially going to play another 60 games this season. Garret Sparks hasn't provided stability in the backup role that ex-Leafs Curtis McElhinney was able to in the past, putting more pressure on Andersen this season. Toronto's defence has given up the 8th most shots against, with over 33 shots given up a game. The seven other teams that have given up more shots than Toronto, only two of them are in a playoff spot. Luckily the Leafs save percentage as a team is over .910 but the will drop if Toronto keeps giving up a ton of shots.
The Leafs goals against average is close to 3 but compared to Boston the Leafs need to do better. The Bruins are 3rd with an impressive G.A.A of 2.55. Toronto has been given up goals in bunches, two of the last four games have seen them give up a total of 23 goals, going 1-3 in that span. This season Andersen hasn't seen much of the Bruins, having made two starts with a 1-1 record. Andersen stopped 38 of 40 shots in his first start against the Bruins, though his second start he surrenders 6 goals and got pulled in the loss. This season Toronto's G.A.A against Boston is there fourth highest against any NHL teams they faced. Frederik Andersen needs to be more consistent and will have to steal some games if they want to see the second round because their defence isn't strong enough to hold up against the Bruins aggressive quick pace attack.
Last postseason Freddie was up and down. In games where Toronto won Andersen gave up only 6 goals. Game 6 Andersen gave up just one goal and helped send the series to game 7. In games where he lost, Andersen gave up three times of the goals, while his save percentage in those games didn't hit .900. In game 2 he got pulled giving up three goals on five shots in the first period. Game 7 he didn't fare well and got torched. In the biggest game of the season, he struggled and the Bruins got to him.
The Leafs are 1-3 against the Bruins this season and two of those losses were by more than two goals. Toronto's Achilles heel against Boston has been the inability to stop the dangerous Pasternak-Marchand-Bergeron line. Last year in the playoffs the Bruins front line had their way against the Leafs, combining for 30 points in that series and contributed with a goal each in game 7. This season the line continued to wreak havoc again against Toronto, especially Pasternak who loves to beat the Leafs, as they've put up at least a point in every meeting against the Leafs this season. The young Czech forward has had 4 career hat tricks with two of them against Toronto ( one was this season) and had a multi-goal game earlier in another game against their division rival.
Marchand and Bergeron have had Toronto's number and has come up big against the Leafs in critical moments. Bergeron has the knack of producing in games 7's against the Leafs. Scoring the game winner in 2013 and had a goal and two helpers in last year's game 7. Marchand's pesky antics and scoring abilities handcuffed the Leafs in the playoffs. He's the type of player that can shift the momentum to his team. If Toronto can't defend against the Bruins top line and if they don't in their likely playoff matchup, they won't stand a chance.
Auston Matthews had a playoffs to forget last year. With Zdeno Chara being on the ice nearly every time Matthews was playing, Matthews was merely a ghost. The former Calder Trophy winner only had one goal in the series and an assist. Matthews couldn't muster many scoring chances and was a dismal -4 in the series. Only Jake Gardiner had a worst plus-minus rating on the Leafs. Patrice Bergeron, who is one of the best two-way players in the league, helped shut down the young centre. Matthews led the team in shots but most of them weren't in high scoring areas. The Leafs need Matthews to step up against the Bruins if they want to finally put away Boston.
William Nylander also struggled against the Bruins playing alongside Matthews. Although he did a tad better than Matthews in the scoring department (1G, 3A), he didn't score until the sixth game of the series. Nylander looked lost at times on the ice, missing on his defensive assignments. Toronto as a whole wasn't able to handle the physicality of the Bruins players.
The Leafs can't make the same mistakes as they did last year against Boston. With this matchup pretty much penciled in, Toronto will have their hands full again. With their recent struggles and lack of success against their divisional foes already this season, it seems Toronto could end up with another early playoff exit.