By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins had an excellent regular season, one much better than just about anybody could have possibly expected. Still, considering how successful it was, there’s a lingering feeling in Boston right now that the Bruins missed an opportunity and came up short in a quest for first place in the division and conference.
That’s not without reason. As a result of finishing one standings point behind Tampa Bay, the Bruins will face the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of the New Jersey Devils in the opening round of the postseason this week. While a first-round meeting with the Leafs is hardly a death sentence for the Bruins’ 2017-18, it does figure to be a greater challenge than a first-round date with New Jersey would have been.
That’s in part due to the two teams’ overall records on the year (Toronto went 49-26-7, while New Jersey finished 44-29-9), but also based on how each team performed against the Bruins. The Maple Leafs went 3-1-0 against Boston this season, while the Devils went 0-2-1 against the Bruins.
But what’s done is done, and for falling just short of the No. 1 seed in the postseason, the Bruins face a very tough task in their first-round series. Here’s which players in particular the Bruins will have to be wary of at all times.
82 GP, 22 goals, 47 assists, 69 points
While the hockey world has (rightfully) been enchanted by the exploits of Auston Matthews, it’s another young forward who’s done the most damage against the Bruins.
The Bruins have had absolutely no answer for Marner this year, as the second-year center has scored three goals and assisted on six more for nine points in the four games against Boston. That’s a continuation of success that Marner found against Boston as a rookie in the 2016-17 season, when he tallied 1-3-4 totals in four games for a two-year total of four goals and nine assists for 13 points in eight games.
This season, his work was pretty important. He assisted on the game-tying goal in the final minute of the first meeting between the Bruins and Leafs, and then he assisted on Patrick Marleau’s OT winner. He opened the scoring in the two teams’ second meeting, and then assisted on an insurance goal in the third period to stretch Toronto’s lead to two goals. He scored a power-play goal to tie the lone game which the Bruins won against Toronto this year, and then in the final meeting he had a hand in all four of Toronto’s goals in a 4-3 win at home. Marner scored Toronto’s first goal that night, when the Leafs trailed 1-0, before assisting on three more Toronto goals.
Clearly, the Bruins have had trouble with Marner this year. He picked up 13 percent of his season total in points in just 5 percent of his games played. Keeping a closer eye on No. 16 should be priority No. 1 for Bruce Cassidy’s team.
80 GP, 32 goals, 23 assists, 55 points
He was a young player on the rise the last time the Leafs and Bruins met in the postseason back in 2013, and five years later he’s an established all-around player. He scored 32 goals this season, matching his total from last year, but he’s on this list because of his work on the power play.
Kadri scored 12 goals on the power play this season, leading the Leafs in that category, while assisting on seven more. The Bruins had a very strong penalty kill this year (83.7 percent, third-best in the NHL), but if often only takes one ill-timed penalty and a well-executed power-play goal to turn the momentum in a playoff game, and Kadri figures to be a prime candidate to be the culprit.
James van Riemsdyk would also fit in this category, as he scored 11 power-play goals with nine power-play assists on the year. Defenseman Morgan Rielly has led the Leafs with 24 assists with the man advantage, while Marner has recorded 19.
62 GP, 34 goals, 29 assists, 63 points
Auston Matthews’ place on this list may go without saying, but there’s truly no player more dangerous than the 20-year-old star. Matthews was better than a point-per-game player this year, recording 63 points (with a balanced 34 goals and 29 assists) in 62 games played.
Averaging more than 18 minutes on the ice per game, Matthews played at a pace that would’ve had him surpassing last year’s goal total of 40. A concussion and a shoulder injury limited him to just the 62 games played, but his impact on the ice is undeniable.
The Bruins only got a chance to play against Matthews once this year, and it happened to be the game which Boston won. Matthews finished that game without a point and with a minus-2 rating, registering just one shot on net (his lone shot attempt) in 17:15 time on ice.
That game, though, took place in Boston, when Bruce Cassidy was able to send Zdeno Chara over the boards for virtually every single one of Matthews’ even-strength shifts. Chara obviously handled the task quite well. But when the series shifts to Toronto, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock will almost certainly do his best to get Matthews on the ice whenever Chara heads to the bench, which could make a significant difference in opening up just enough room for Matthews to operate.