- James Murphy, Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The Boston Bruins limp into the playoffs having lost three of their past four games, blowing leads and looking nothing like the team that dominated early on. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs carry the excitement and momentum of being the first Toronto squad to make the playoffs since 2004. Here's what to look for as these two divisional rivals and Original Six teams meet in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Bruins: 28-14-6, 62 points, fourth in Eastern Conference, second in Northeast Division
Maple Leafs: 26-17-5, 57 points, fifth in Eastern Conference, third in Northeast Division
Head to head: The Bruins won the season series 3-1-0. That one loss was their first to the Maple Leafs since March 2011. Since the 2009-10 season the Bruins are 15-4-3 against their Northeast Division rivals.
Bruins: On paper the Bruins have a clear edge in depth when it comes to skilled forwards. If they can finally play up to that potential on the ice, they will be a lot better than they have been down the stretch. Even with a subpar stretch run and major struggles lighting the lamp, the Bruins still finished sixth in five-on-five scoring. Of course, they will need top goal scorers Brad Marchand (18 goals) and Tyler Seguin (16 goals) to continue to score in the playoffs, but what may be more important will be whether players such as Nathan Horton (13 goals) and Milan Lucic (7 goals) contribute. If Lucic and Horton can utilize the playmaking skills of David Krejci -- who led the team in assists with 23 and will likely be centering them -- the Bruins have two scoring lines with the potential of more on a third line that will feature future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr. In addition to increasing their scoring output, it will be essential that the Bruins play their physical game.
Maple Leafs: All the hype surrounding the Maple Leafs' turnaround seems to be their physical game and the way they resemble the 2007 Stanley Cup champion Ducks, who were coached by current Leafs boss Randy Carlyle. But don't sleep on Toronto's scoring potential. The Leafs scored 105 goals at even strength and were ranked fourth in the NHL in five-on-five scoring. Former Bruin Phil Kessel has finally started to live up to the potential that former Leafs GM Brian Burke was counting on when he traded a 2010 first-round draft pick (which turned into Tyler Seguin) and a 2011 first-round draft pick (which became defenseman Dougie Hamilton). Burke never lived down that trade, and Kessel and the Leafs are constantly reminded of it with "Thank you, Kessel" chants from Bruins fans at TD Garden. But Kessel comes into the playoffs leading the Leafs with 20 goals and 52 points, and if he can come out from underneath Zdeno Chara's shadow, the Leafs' chances of pulling an upset increase dramatically. Toronto's scoring doesn't stop after Kessel. Emerging stars Nazem Kadri (18 goals, 44 points) and James van Riemsdyk (18 goals, 32 points) pose threats as well.
Edge: Experience usually wins in the end, so the Bruins get the slight advantage here.
Bruins: This is another area where, if the game were to be played on paper and not ice, the Bruins would get the edge hands-down. But considering the Bruins' blue-line struggles of late, it's hard to predict whether one of the deepest groups of D-men in the NHL will show up. Will the Bruins' blueliners be the turnover machine that has left their goalies out to dry so many times recently? If the Chara-Dennis Seidenberg shutdown tandem returns to form, the Bruins should have an advantage. The scariest part of the Bruins' defensive woes lately? Chara has been at the core of it, turning the puck over more than any other time in his Bruins career. The Bruins have some solid defensemen in their bottom two pairings and finished the season third in goals against. But this defense goes the way Chara goes. If he isn't his Norris Trophy-level self, the Bruins are in trouble.
Maple Leafs: If you said before this season that Cody Franson would lead Leafs defensemen with 29 points or even say you knew anything about Franson, then you're either a really good NHL scout or a psychic. Franson finished with one point more than Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. But after Franson and Phaneuf, Toronto's blue line drops off, helping to explain why they finished 14th in goals against. However, the Leafs' defense -- and their forwards -- will make you pay the price if you're going to get down deep or in front of the net. They have the ability to grind opposing forwards down.
Edge: Bruins, because Chara's game simply can't be in as much decline as it has seemed lately.
Bruins: Bruins fans should be chanting "Thank you, Leafs!" for goaltender Tuukka Rask. In a contract year, Rask -- whom Toronto dealt to the Bruins in June 2006 for former NHLer Andrew Raycroft -- has done his part in earning a long-term deal with Boston thus far. Rask is 19-10-5 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. While he admittedly has had a bad game here and there, he has been Boston's most consistent performer and has bailed his team out on many occasions. That type of goaltending is what wins in the playoffs. With a motivated Rask looking to erase the memories of 2010, when he was the starter and his team blew a 3-0 series lead in the playoffs to the Flyers, this is one area the Bruins can count on.
Leafs: James Reimer has continued to silence the doubters, despite coming into the season knowing that his team was trying to replace him with Roberto Luongo via trade, and then having Leafs GM Dave Nonis publicly acknowledge they were doing so again heading into the trade deadline. Reimer finished the season at 19-8-5 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. But this will be his first playoff experience, so the doubts will continue. Thus far, Reimer's perseverance in blocking out the distractions of the trade rumors and playing in a hockey hotbed like Toronto have shown he can handle it.
Edge: Bruins. Rask puts the epic collapse of the Philly series behind him and will be the MVP of this series.
Bruins: There is really not much to say here in terms of the Bruins' power play. They don't have one. Nothing has changed over the past three seasons. The Bruins finished 8-for-64 on the man-advantage during the regular season. If that changes in this series, it will obviously help, but don't count on it.
Leafs: The Leafs' power play wasn't much better as they finished 14th overall and were 16-for-88. They have some weapons in Kessel, Kadri and Joffrey Lupul but they won't win this series on the power play.
Edge: Leafs, but not by much.
Bruins: The penalty kill has been the Bruins' bread-and-butter with Claude Julien at the helm. They once again finished near the top, with the fourth-best rate in killing off 142 of 163 power plays against them this season.
Leafs: Toronto's penalty kill actually finished ahead of the Bruins' in killing off 138 of 157 power plays, second-best in the NHL. The Leafs play a similar tenacious style to the Bruins on the penalty kill. Against a woeful Bruins' power play, Toronto shouldn't have any problems.
Edge: Leafs, but again, not by much
Bruins: Claude Julien is second all-time in wins for Bruins coaches and brought Boston its first Stanley Cup in 39 seasons in 2011. While his team was bounced in the first round last season and struggled down the stretch this season, many players will tell you things could be worse if not for Julien's even-keel approach. If the players follow his game plan, they should find a way to win this series.
Leafs: Carlyle transformed the Anaheim Ducks into a bruising team that scored clutch goals, leading to a Stanley Cup for them in 2007. He has successfully started the same transformation in Toronto, though the Leafs probably won't hoist their first Stanley Cup since 1967 this June. Still, Carlyle has the coaching skills to pull an upset in this series.
Edge: Too close to call.
Bruins in 7: The Bruins played like a team riding out the season for the last month. While fatigue played a factor, it wasn't enough of an excuse for their lackluster, underachieving performance. However, there is something about the Stanley Cup playoffs that can wake a team up. With the experience the core of this Bruins team has in the playoffs, the bet here is the Bruins will play more like the team that looked like Cup contenders in February. The Leafs do have a team that could pull an upset. If they can steal one in Boston in the first two games, those chances obviously increase. But the Leafs won't be pushovers, experience usually takes over in the playoffs.
The Boston Bruins limp into the playoffs having lost three of their past four games, blowing leads and looking nothing like the team that dominated early on.