If you ask Bruce Cassidy, the challenge that comes when an 82-game slate is narrowed down to a single opponent is not identifying weaknesses in your playoff opponent. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
“I think it’s about as much, for me personally, how to take away strengths,” Cassidy said. “How do you get them to have to adjust and try to win a game how they generally don’t, maybe, win it.
“With Toronto, we know it’s offense. They like to stretch the zone so, for us, that was what we really tried to work on last year, make them try to beat you different ways than that. But we’ll look at them again, so that’s the way I look at it. You’re really dialed into 23 players, then you’re probably going to see, 'How do we best fit?' So, that part of the game I like, the game-planning part, but it’s also about getting your guys in a good place and managing your people and keeping them in a good place through the highs and the lows because there will be lows.”
Newcomers like John Tavares, Jake Muzzin, Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson will add a different wrinkle to both the Bruins and Maple Leafs (after all, these clubs haven’t faced off since all the way back on Jan. 12), but there are plenty of returning players on both sides from last year’s seven-game slugfest. And with that familiar cast of characters back, so too return the various strengths and weakness on both sides that Cassidy and Mike Babcock will look to exploit and diminish over the next two weeks.
Here are eight key matchups that could tip the scales in favor of either club during this first-round rematch.
1. Bergeron Line vs. Tavares Line
Even before Toronto opened up the checkbook this past summer, the Leafs already boasted a potent top-six corps during the 2017-18 season, with Auston Matthews anchoring Toronto’s top line.
But the 21-year-old center was largely non-existent during Toronto’s first-round exit to Boston last spring, with the then-34 goal scorer limited to just one goal and two total points during the seven-game series. Why? A big portion of the credit has to go to Patrice Bergeron.
In total, Bergeron and Matthews were directly matched up for 26:24 of 5v5 time on ice (TOI) during the series. And during that stretch, Boston controlled possession at 56.1 percent, held a plus-6 edge in scoring chances generated while finishing with a plus-1 goal differential. As 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Ty Anderson noted on Friday — since Matthews made his debut with Toronto in 2016, the Leafs have not been able to score in 90:32 of even-strength TOI during the stretches in which both Bergeron and Zdeno Chara are patrolling the ice at the same time.
If a patented sniper like Matthews can’t get on the board against the Bruins during crunch time — what can the Leafs really do to put themselves over the top? Well, adding another franchise pivot in Tavares helps out quite a bit, as the former Islanders captain lit the lamp 47 times in his first season in Toronto. The addition of another superstar in Tavares — especially when paired with a Bruins killer (and franchise player in his own right) like Mitch Marner — has to complicate things quite a bit when it comes to matchups for the Bruins, right?
Well, not exactly.
With the Bruins and Maple Leafs closing out their entire four-game set of regular-season matchups over the span of just nine weeks, Bergeron was only able to play in two bouts against Toronto, with a rib/sternoclavicular injury putting him on the shelf for the other two meetings. But when he was cleared for game action — Bergeron and his usual linemates in Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak usually found their numbers called during the same time in which the Leafs’ trio of Marner, Zach Hyman and Tavares were out on the ice.
Tavares pretty much found himself in the same boat as Matthews during his face-to-face meetings with No. 37 — with Boston holding the edge in shot attempts (27-20), shots on goal (13-7) and goals (1-0) during 22:33 of 5v5 TOI.
“They’re obviously very creative, very smart hockey players, opportunistic,” Tavares said of Boston’s top line back on Nov. 10. “Patrice Bergeron is one of the most complete players in the game and doesn’t give you much room the other way.
“They don’t give you a whole lot, offensively as well. Really it’s a chess match and just making sure you’re doing the best you can on limiting their time and space and making them have to defend, we did that for good stretches tonight but not enough obviously they capitalized on their opportunities. “
(Tavares didn’t have much to write home about in his second head-to-head meeting with the Bergeron-Chara combination, landing just a single shot on goal in a losing effort at Scotiabank Arena.)
While Cassidy could opt to spread some of his defensive stalwarts around and place a player like Chara on a matchup against the Matthews’ line, one thing is for certain — if Toronto is going to punch its ticket to the second round for the first time since 2004, it’s going to need its fourth-ranked offense to hum at an effective rate. If Bergeron and Co. keep Tavares’ line in a black hole on offense, the Leafs are going to stall.
2. Matt Grzelcyk and Boston’s D corps. vs. Toronto’s forecheck