May 30th, 2024

Maple Leafs, Bruins set to renew playoff hostilities: ‘Here we go again’

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on April 19, 2024.

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (16) passes the puck past Boston Bruins centre Matthew Poitras (51) and defenceman Hampus Lindholm (27) during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

BOSTON – Auston Matthews has closed the book on his staggering regular season.

The Maple Leafs sniper came one shot – one crossbar – short of becoming just the ninth player in NHL history to reach 70 goals in a campaign.

Toronto’s star attraction and his teammates limped over the finish line with four straight losses to close out the schedule in games that were largely insignificant as Matthews pushed for the milestone.

The slate now wiped clean, the Leafs’ attention is squarely on the playoffs and the Boston Bruins.

“The most important thing is the team and the team’s success,” said Matthews, whose group opens its post-season quest Saturday night at TD Garden. “That’s where my focus is at. That’s where my mindset’s been at all year as far as getting prepared.

“Looking forward to getting started.”

The Leafs briefly ended nearly two decades of heartache last spring when they advanced in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 with a series victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Toronto then bowed out in five games to the Florida Panthers, who had just upset the Bruins.

“New year, different team,” said Leafs winger Calle Jarnkrok, back in the lineup following a hand injury. “But we’re feeling good.”

“Everybody’s so excited,” added goaltender Ilya Samsonov. “Most interesting time in the year.”

Toronto and Boston met in the first round in 2018 and 2019, with the Bruins taking both series in seven games.

“Here we go again,” Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy said. “This is what you play for.”

Boston has six players on the current roster from that squad in McAvoy, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen and Brandon Carlo. Toronto returnees include Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly.

“Guys are excited,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, who got the job partway through the 2019-20 campaign. “You want to just drop the puck and get going.”

Bruins counterpart Jim Montgomery sees a focused group after the Panthers ruined Boston’s record-setting 2022-23 output.

“They seem to be more in the moment,” said the second-year bench boss. “There’s more urgency.”

The playoff gamesmanship has also begun.

Keefe wouldn’t share why Nylander missed Wednesday’s practice, while Montgomery has yet to reveal whether Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman will get the start in goal.

“The preparation is about finding ways to get through their team,” Keefe said of Boston’s defensive structure. “The goalie is as an afterthought.”

The Bruins, who famously fought back from 4-1 down in the third period of Game 7 in 2013 before stunning the Leafs in overtime, swept its Original Six rival four straight in the regular season.

“We’ve learned what doesn’t work,” Keefe said abruptly.

On the other side, the Bruins will have their plate full when Matthews, Marner and Co. have the puck.

“The more we can make them defend, the better,” Boston blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk said. “They have such great chemistry together that they seemingly know where each other are without even having to take a look.

“It’s constantly, working, winning your battles. And away from the puck, making sure that you have good details.”

Matthews indicated when the chase for 70 goals came up just short he was focused on elevating his game even further.

What could that possibly look like after finding the back of the net 69 times in 81 games?

“The sky’s the limit, right?” Keefe said. “The fact that it’s a quick turnaround right into the playoffs here should benefit someone like Auston, who’s been in such a great groove.”

The task, however, is about to get a lot more challenging for a Toronto roster that added a measure of sandpaper in the summer with forwards Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Ryan Reaves for these moments.

“It’s a different time of the year,” Keefe continued. “(Matthews) is going to be a focal point of the opposition, no doubt. It’ll be exciting to watch him play. But most importantly, our team game and how everybody supports one another is really what it’s going to be about. We’re equipped with lots of different options, lots of depth of scoring, lots of competitiveness and grit and physicality and toughness.

“Excited to get going.”

TALE OF THE TAPE

Regular-season series: Boston (4-0-0); Toronto (0-2-2).

Goals per game: Toronto, 3.63 (2nd); Boston, 3.21 (14th).

Top point producers: Boston, David Pastrnak, 110; Toronto, Auston Matthews, 107.

Starting goaltenders: Linus Ullmark, 22-10-7, 2.57 goals-against average, .915 save percentage/Boston, Jeremy Swayman, 25-10-8, 2.53 GAA, .916 save percentage/Toronto, Ilya Samsonov 23-7-8, 3.13 GAA, .890 save percentage.

Power play percentage: Toronto, 24.0 (7th); Boston, 22.2 (14th).

Penalty kill percentage: Boston, 82.5 (7th); Toronto 76.9 (23rd).

The Big Stat: Matthews scored 69 goals in the regular season to lead the NHL, including 51 at even strength for Toronto; Pastrnak topped Boston with 47 combined goals in all situations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.

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