Over the course of the last few weeks, hockey fans had the opportunity to watch a close race for the first spot in the Atlantic division. The Tampa Bay Lightning held first place in the Eastern Conference along with the Atlantic division for the majority of the season. However, Boston followed closely and eventually overtook Tampa Bay for first place in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference this past month.
UNFORTUNATELY, due to a flawed playoff system (a discussion for another day), the Maple Leafs have fallen into a less than ideal playoff situation. The Maple Leafs will have to play the second best team in the Atlantic division; which has still yet to be undetermined between the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. This means if the playoffs were to start today, Boston would play the Maple Leafs in the first round.
FORTUNATELY, the Maple Leafs had the opportunity to play both these teams 4 times each throughout the year. Essentially, this gave head coach Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs a good idea of which opponent they would match up best against in a 7 game playoff series. This season, Toronto went 3-1 against Boston and 1-2-1 against the Lightning, however knowledgeable hockey fans will know that the regular season doesn’t actually replicate playoff hockey. To put this into context, the Bruins played the first 2 games of this series without forwards David Krejci, David Backes and their trade deadline acquisition Rick Nash, which proved costly as the Maple Leafs won both of those contests. Post-season games are faster, more physical and played extremely tight between both teams, but judging by last seasons first round matchup against Washington, the Leafs stand a fair chance against any team they play this time around.
Maple Leaf fans are still haunted by that disastrous game 7 meltdown against the Bruins, in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. This game saw the Leafs surrender a 4-goal lead with less than 11 minutes to go in the game, inevitably losing in overtime. Although much change has come to the Maple Leafs organization since then, Boston has also developed a highly skilled team who are capable of competing for the Stanley Cup. Unlike Tampa, the Bruins are highly physical both offensively and defensively. Boston’s gritty; “in-your-face” play style will surely be evident against a physically weaker Maple Leafs team who is notorious for turning over the puck. Once Boston gains control of the game, it is almost impossible to recover. Not to mention the Bruins have a history of late-game comebacks, especially against Toronto.
The Lightning would be a better first-round matchup for Toronto as their play styles replicate one another. Both Toronto and Tampa have the ability to get up and down the ice quickly, using their highly talented players to score goals at an obnoxious rate. Other than depth defensively, Tampa and Toronto match up fairly similarly, which can benefit Toronto in a 7 game series, as these games are often decided by 1 goal. The Maple Leafs should hope to play Tampa in the first round, saving the Boston series for the second. Who knows, maybe the script will flip this season and Boston will collapse in game 7? Anything is possible.