Last night the Toronto Maple Leafs played their first playoff game in 9 years. What was supposed to be a happy moment for Leaf fans, turned into a nightmare when they found out just how good the Boston Bruins are.
Despite the fact the Leafs got manhandled during the opening game of this series, there's still a lot of hockey to be played and the Leafs still have a shot against the Bruins. There was no question heading into this series that this would be a tough match for the Leafs, but every match-up in the playoffs is tough.
My biggest pet peeve is many Leafs fans' started counting the Leafs out before the puck even dropped on this series. I understand that the Bruins have won 9 of the last 10 games against the Leafs, but the playoffs are a different story, everything else gets wiped away. Yes the Bruins destroyed the Leafs last night, but a bounce or two in favour of the Leafs and it's a different hockey game. If James van Riemsdyk had buried the puck instead of hitting the crossbar, then the Leafs are up 2-1 instead of down 2-1 after the first.
The Leafs, at least for the first period were in the game and competing hard against the Bruins. If you call yourself a Leafs fan and are saying they don't stand a chance, don't call yourself a Leafs fan. You're not being a realist, anything can happen in the playoffs and Leafs match up just fine against the Bruins.
The good news for the Leafs is players like Nazem Kadri, James Reimer and Tyler Bozak who didn't have any NHL playoff experience, now have an NHL playoff game under their belt. They got their first taste of playoff hockey and now they know what's it's like and what it takes to be successful in the playoffs. Using what they learned in the last game, not just the rookies but all the Leafs, can now come out better prepared for game two.
Here's my three reasons why the Leafs stand a chance and if they utilize these aspects, could defeat the Bruins.
As inexperienced James Reimer is in the playoffs, Tuukka Rask is also pretty inexperienced. Rask was the backup in 2011 and 2012 and was responsible to the Bruins mega collapse in 2010. Last night Rask did not look good. He looked shaky and frustrated early on and if the Leafs had managed some sustained pressure they would have been able to beat him early.
While this may not be a popular opinion, I think the Leafs have better goaltending this year in James Reimer than the Bruins do in Rask.
Reimer has something to prove, he wants to show the Leafs brass that he can get the job done and be the number one goalie for the Leafs in the future.
If James Reimer can find his game and hold the Leafs in games where they're being outplayed the Leafs will have the edge between the pipes.
2. Special Teams
The Leafs have a very skilled roster. With players like Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak. Aside from Tyler Seguin the Bruins don't have any young skilled forwards.
The Leafs also boast the 2nd best penalty kill in the league. While the Bruins also have a solid penalty kill heir power play is horrendous ranking 26th in the league. If the Leafs can make the most of their opportunities with the extra man and limit their time spent in the box, they'll win the special teams battle.
3. Leafs aren't afraid of the Bruins
For the Leafs to go into this series thinking they're going to beat the Bruins physically is just wrong. You can't beat the Bruins at their own game. Many have tried and all have failed, the Bruins WILL ALWAYS win the physical battle. There's not one player on their roster who won't beat the crap out of an opposing player.
But the Bruins count on hard-hitting and intimidating their opponents to win games. The good news is the Leafs aren't intimidated or afraid of the Bruins. They know what to expect from the Bruins and they know they're going to get hit and beat up in this series. You saw Mikhail Grabovski get assaulted several times last night but he never shied away.
So while the Leafs can't be more physical than the Bruins, they can frustrate them by not giving up or joining them. The old saying- "If you can't beat them join them", is what the Bruins count on. They coax their opponents into an intense physical battle and strike when their opponents are off their game plan. The Leafs need to play tough but stick to their game plan and not roll over. If the Leafs can hang tough and keep coming back for more punishment, they'll frustrate the Bruins and likely force them into taking dumb penalties.
Here's an interesting tidbit for all you Leafs fans out there. The last time a 5th seed won the Stanley Cup was the New Jersey Devils after the last lockout shortened season. Guess who the Devils beat in round one? The Boston Bruins.
While it isn't going to be easy and it wont be likely, if the Leafs can get stellar goaltending from James Reimer, make the Bruins pay for taking stupid penalties and force them into taking stupid penalties, there is a chance the Leafs can take this series.
Having said that I still stick to my prediction of Bruins in 6 games.