Bruins

Bruins-Maple Leafs rivalry returns after nearly two years since their last match-up

After intense playoff matchups in 2018 and 2019, the rivals take the ice in Toronto on Saturday.

John Tavares and David Pastrnak will go head-to-head for the first time since 2019 on Saturday night.

TORONTO — Seven hundred twenty-two days.

As with many day-to-day developments with COVID-19, the pandemic stole several more chapters of the Bruins-Maple Leafs rivalry. On Saturday, they’ll finally renew acquaintances for the first time since Boston’s 4-2 victory over Toronto on Nov. 15, 2019.

The Bruins returned to Toronto in the summer of 2020. But, the strict protocols of the playoff bubble prevented them and the 11 other Eastern Conference squads from experiencing the electric nightlife and atmosphere of Ontario’s capital city.

With restrictions loosened for those fully-vaccinated, the NHL returned to its usual divisional format following a modified 2021 campaign. The passionate Bruins and Maple Leafs fanbases circled this day on their calendar. The anticipation will soon come to fruition when Boston and Toronto drop the puck shortly after 7 p.m.

“It’s been a while,” Patrice Bergeron, fresh off a four-goal outing Thursday night, said of the long-awaited Bruins-Maple Leafs matchup.

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Bergeron and company embark on their third road trip of the season, albeit for just a game. This Toronto stop marks their first international visit since exiting the playoff bubble following their five-game second-round exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Ontario recently opened bars and restaurants to full capacity as part of their re-opening phase. Again, the Bruins used those perks wisely, bonding in small groups after landing in Toronto on Friday.

“Some smaller groups went out to dinner. We’re trying to mix in some groups and try to get to know some of the new guys, and last night was no different,” Bergeron said following Boston’s optional skate. “It’s been a lot of fun so far. Being on the road helps create some chemistry and bonding — you can do that at home, but it’s on a different level. But it was a fun night last night.”

Indeed, the pandemic hasn’t fully concluded yet. Instead, 2021 brought a slow return to normalcy, or for that matter, a new normal.

All 32 teams have opened their buildings to full capacity. The Bruins became one of the first teams to reap those benefits, hosting a nearly full-house for each of their three second-round home matchups with the New York Islanders. A return to their eight-team Atlantic Division now provides another layer of normalcy.

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“Being able to travel, going back to regular divisions and being able to go outside and hang out and not being at the hotel for dinner — it’s been nice,” Bergeron added. “It all feels like it’s getting back to normal pretty much.”

Even with familiar faces like Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Reilly, and John Tavares (to name a few), the Bruins and Maple Leafs both encountered significant turnaround with their rosters over the last couple of seasons.

The Bruins lost impact leaders in the time between, including Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, and David Krejci. Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo took on significant roles on the blue-line to fill Krug and Chara’s voids. Saturday’s starter Linus Ullmark and rookie standout Jeremy Swayman are now manning in the Boston net in Rask’s absence. Charlie Coyle centers a new-look second line with 2020 free agent signing Craig Smith and 2021 trade deadline pickup Taylor Hall.

For Toronto, Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench shortly after their last matchup with the Bruins. Jack Campbell took over the goaltending reigns from Frederik Andersen. Zach Hyman, a top-six glue guy, departed for Edmonton this off-season. The Leafs entered the 2021-22 season with significant scrutiny after blowing a 3-1 first-round series lead to the Montreal Canadiens last spring.

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The buzz for Saturday’s matchup won’t reach the heights of a Game 7. But the familiar names and new faces provide plenty of intrigue following a 722-day pause of the Bruins-Maple Leafs rivalry.

“We haven’t seen them in a long time. So it will be nice to be able to get back at it,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We were developing a good rivalry there.”

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