BRIGHTON, Mass. — There’s certainly a feeling of déjà vu coursing through the Bruins dressing room these days as they ready for Game 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night at TD Garden.
It’s the same place the B’s were just a year ago getting ready for Toronto in the first round while enjoying home-ice advantage, but now they also have the ability to use the hindsight of last spring’s seven-game series to inform them this time around.
They also know that as much as some fans might want to skip ahead to a possible second-round matchup against the NHL’s best team in the Tampa Bay Lightning, they have their hands full right now with an explosive, well-coached hockey club in the Maple Leafs.
“I think they’re a difficult opponent, clearly. They’re an elite team, and we’re going to have to have all facets of our game to the best, the top of our capabilities. It’s going to start with, right from the drop of the puck and playing the right way,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “I think our team knows what our identity is.
“We’re going to have to play to our strengths, and we’re going to have to minimize the effect that they can, but they’re a dangerous club. We have to be very respectful of our opponent, and we should be.”
Clearly both teams are a bit different than they were a year ago, but it feels like many of the same guidelines — stopping Toronto’s attempts at stretch passes for the home run play, slowing down Morgan Rielly and exploiting the holes in the Leafs’ D-zone play — are going to be at play again this season.
“You can take a few things. Obviously it’s a different [Leafs] team and you don’t want to dwell on the past, but it’s more just past playoff experiences that regardless of the situation, until the series is totally over then anybody is in it,” said Brad Marchand. “We’ve been down in series before against [Toronto] and they’ve been down in series against us, and we’ve both come back.
“So I’m sure it’s going to play out to be a very exciting series, and no matter how it plays out in the first four games of the series, tides are going to swing one way and the other at some point. It’s going to be exciting. It always is. There’s always a lot of hype around it. The fans really enjoy it and playing each other so much over the last couple of years really adds to it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Certainly there are things the Bruins are doing in preparation for the Toronto series with that match-up specifically in mind. Against a deeper, more defensive-minded team they might break up their top line, but the Bruins would be foolish to run away from a Brad Marchand/Patrice Bergeron/David Pastrnak trio that almost singlehandedly destroyed the Maple Leafs in last spring’s seven-game series.
So the Perfection Line will ride again, and the Bruins will pay close attention to the defensive side of things to shut down a Leafs squad that wants to play run-and-gun hockey with John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner all over the ice.
“As for strengths and weaknesses, they’re looking to create speed in the neutral zone with those long stretch passes and we’ll need to control that part of the game. If we can shut off the rush at the blue line then we’re going to have problems. That’s one area of concern,” said Bruce Cassidy. “In the D-zone coverage they can stretch you out if we’re not making good reads. So there are a couple of areas away from the puck [that we’ll focus on].
“It really doesn’t change a lot for us offensively or defensively as much as it’s paying attention to places where we’ve been exposed in the past against Toronto, especially against their speed. If we allow them to play to their strength then the series could tilt in their favor.”
One thing that would be foolhardy would be assuming the Bruins are going to roll over the Maple Leafs easily given the success they’ve enjoyed against Toronto over the last couple of seasons. The Leafs showed last spring that they won’t go down easily and that the slightest loss of focus will lead to plenty of goals scored by an offense that averaged 3.49 goals per game during the regular season.
If the Bruins play smart hockey and stick to their strengths, they will come out on top when the series is over a couple of weeks from now.
But the Black and Gold are showing the proper kind of respect against a Toronto team as they ready for postseason battle later on this week.
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