The Bruins and Maple Leafs play Game 1 of their first-round playoff series at 7 p.m. Thursday in Boston.
The two teams finished among the top eight in the NHL this season. Both average more than three goals per game. The Bruins were among the NHL’s best defensive teams, allowing 2.59 goals against per game, while Toronto struggled with consistent defense. Both team’s power plays rank in the top eight in the league; the penalty killing (79.9 percent) was identical on both teams.
Here are seven expert predictions on who will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ second round:
Pierre LeBrun, The Athletic: Bruins in seven games.
LeBrun enlisted the help of two NHL coaches for his first-round playoff previews. The coaches spoke on conditions of anonymity, but they’re as excited anyone for Bruins-Leafs.
“I think it will be a very competitive series but I think at the end, very similar to Washington’s qualities, Boston has guys that have been there and won,” one anonymous coach said. “The Bruins can play any way. They can score, they can check very well, they’re well-structured, I just think they play playoff-winning hockey.’’
The other coach told LeBrun that he’s not sure the Maple Leafs’ forwards will be able to take advantage of Boston’s defense. If Toronto can’t do that, he said, they will need to rely on their defense, and the defense is not great. He said he does not think the Leafs beat the Bruins unless Frederik Andreson is “that much better” than Tuukka Rask.
For LeBrun himself, he writes that the Bruins should scare the entire league, not just the Maple Leafs. He cited the Bruins’ tremendous performances even while star players were out for extended periods of time as examples of the team’s overall depth.
“I think Tavares and Matthews each have big performances,” LeBrun wrote. “But the Bruins might just have the best team in the NHL not named Tampa.”
Greg Wyshynski, ESPN: Maple Leafs in seven.
Wyshynski broke down his analysis of the Bruins-Leafs matchup into seven distinct categories: first line, depth, defense, goaltending, coaching, health, and special teams.
He awarded the Bruins an advantage on defense, goaltending, coaching, and special teams. Bruce Cassidy’s nod over Toronto coach Mike Babcock, who earned a reputation as one of hockey’s top coaches in the mid-2000s with the Red Wings, speaks to Cassidy’s consistency getting performances out of his team in spite of injuries to key players throughout the season.
To Wyshynski, the two teams’ top lines are tied in quality and will go back-and-forth all series. The Maple Leafs are healthier than the Bruins at the start of the first round and have better forward depth. The difference-maker, Wyshynski wrote, is goaltending. The Bruins place confidence in both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. The Maple Leafs’ Frederik Andersen has had his work cut out for him this season.
“Andersen is the key to this series, as Toronto has no alternative in goal and because he has been the team’s best defense all season,” Wyshynski wrote. “If he’s able to steal a couple of games, this Toronto offense was second only to the Lightning in 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes (3.03). The Buds pull the upset.”
Dom Luszczyszyn, The Athletic: It’s practically a toss-up.
The NHL’s current playoff format has set the Bruins against the Maple Leafs in the first round two years in a row despite both teams finishing the season within the top eight in the league. Luszczyszyn’s statistics model ultimately gave the Leafs (50.1 percent) the slightest advantage in probability over the Bruins (49.9 percent) to win the series.
While the Bruins boast a top forward line that matches anything the Leafs have to offer, Luszczysyn wrote that the Leafs play a better all-around forward group than Boston’s. John Tavares was not a Maple Leaf last season; his addition gives the Leafs an elite one-two punch at center between him and Auston Matthews. Third line center Nazem Kadri also provides formidable depth on offense when Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak are not on the ice.
Toronto’s defensemen generate better offensive chances than their Boston counterparts, according to Luszczysyn, though the Bruins’ defenseman limit scoring chances well. Luszczysyn’s model projects the Leafs’ goalie, Frederik Anderson, as a better option at goalie than Tuukka Rask.
USA Today: Three of four writers picked the Bruins to win in seven games.
The caveat is that they all agreed the series will last six or seven games and that it could be the most evenly matched series across the NHL playoffs. The last two times the Bruins and Leafs met in the playoffs, the series went to seven games, and as Kevin Allen pointed out, Toronto is more dangerous than ever. For USA Today, the staff expects another first round series to go the distance.
“The Bruins might have the best line in hockey. The Maple Leafs have a top-five offense with seven 20-goal scorers,” Jace Evans wrote. “There’s little that separates these teams on the ice, but the Bruins hold home ice and the mental edge after last year.
Sporting News staff: Five of eight writers picked the Bruins to beat the Leafs.
Again, the defining theme of these predictions is that this series will go the distance. Sporting News pointed out the Leafs’ penalty kill deficiencies in the regular season (79.9 percent) could be a problem facing the Bruins’ power play (25.9 percent, third-best in the league.)
It’s not that simple, though. The Bruins’ penalty kill also struggled at times this season and matches Toronto’s at 79.9 percent. The Leafs’ power play was eighth-best in the NHL this season. Sporting News acknowledged in another article the team with the more potent power play across could shape the outcome of the series.
NHL.com staff: 13 of 15 writers picked the Bruins to beat the Leafs.
Three staff members picked the Bruins to ultimately win the Stanley Cup. Ten picked the Tampa Bay Lightning.
ESPN staff: 11 of 18 staffers picked the Bruins over the Leafs.
Three writers picked the Bruins to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Only one has the Bruins winning it all.