With first place on the line in Sunday night’s regular season finale Bruins fans certainly didn’t get the results they desired. Lucky for us the B’s are still in position to make some noise in the playoffs. I’m not so sure back in October that many felt that would be the case today.

Had the Bruins locked up first place the B’s would be facing the New Jersey Devils in the first round Thursday night. On paper that matchup would have been the better opponent, but we know what that means. In today’s NHL it really does not matter. Whoever the Bruins were going to play was bound to be a dog fight. So with the Bruins finishing the season in second place in the Atlantic Division the dog they draw is the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.

The Bruins went 1-2-1 against the Maple Leafs during the regular season. And since one of those games involved the “loser point” in overtime, the Leafs essentially went 3-1 against the B’s. However, when you take a closer look at the season series it was a lot closer than the records indicate.

The Bruins and Leafs played a home and home series on back-to-back nights in November (10th and 11th). In the first game the Bruins had it all wrapped up but with a minute left in regulation James van Riemsdyk scored to tie the game. Soon after Patrick Marleau scored the overtime game winner. On the next night the Leafs beat the Bruins 4-1 with the B’s out shooting the Leafs 39 to 25.

In the third game of the season series the Bruins had since turned the corner on their season in terms of health and performance. They manhandled the Leafs with a convincing 4-1 win. Patrice Bergeron completely shutdown Auston Matthews, and #34 finished the game a minus-2 and with only 1 shot on net.

The last game of the season series was three weeks later, on February 24th, where the Leafs scored the go ahead goal with just 1:23 left in the 3rd period. The Bruins challenged the goal for goalie interference but lost the challenge (shocking) and the game.

Although the record does not suggest a close competitive season series the Bruins were a combined 2:23 of game time away from winning 3 games instead of just 1.

Going into this playoff series I do not envy Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. He has some hard decisions to make regarding the lineup Thursday night. Primarily with the forwards. Obviously the Bergeron line will stay the same but after that there lay decisions on every line.

I envision Krejci playing with DeBrusk and Rick Nash. All signs are pointing toward #61 being ready to go. If Riley Nash is also healthy enough to go I see him centering Heinen and Backes.

A lot of the lineup decisions could be based on the real threat from the Maple Leafs, the special teams. They have the second best power play in the NHL. It is going to be important for the Bruins to stay out of the penalty box. It’s likely Bruce Cassidy will be deploying a lineup favoring guys who can kill penalties.

Sure it will be hard to not see both Ryan Donato and Tommy Wingels in the lineup but I don’t feel they will draw in right away. If healthy, I see Cassidy going with the tried and true 4th line of Schaller, Kuraly, and Acciari that played together for most of the season. They were the best 4th line in the NHL this year and generate a ton of energy for the team. Each one of them also kills penalties and are all a pain in the ass to play against. Personally, I would prefer Wingels over Acciari in this situation but I don’t see that happening.

Killing penalties is also the reason why I think you will see Nick Holden as the extra defenseman to start the series. Adam McQuaid logs big minutes on the PK and can do it well. The Bruins will also need Matt Grzelcyk’s mobility to keep up with the speedy Maple Leaf forwards at even strength.

Unfortunately I think the Brandon Carlo injury is having a bigger effect on the Bruins than most B’s fans would have thought. His size mixed with his mobility cannot be replaced in the lineup. And he had been on such a nice upward trajectory at the time of his injury. A lineup with Chara – McAvoy, Krug – Carlo, and Grzelcyk – Miller is undeniably much more appealing than Chara – McAvoy, Krug – Miller, and Grzelcyk – McQuaid.

Statistically on offense it was neck and neck all season with the Maple Leafs. They scored just 3 more goals than the Bruins did over the 82 game season, 270 to 267. I still feel the Bruins hold the edge in the offensive game. They have scoring depth throughout their lineup. When you potentially have a guy in Donato (5 goals and 4 assists in 12 games) not in the lineup, it confirms the depth and the flexibility they have to shake it up and strike from all angles.

Another position of strength where I feel the Leafs my be better than the Bruins is in goaltending. It pains me to say this but I think all around Fredrick Anderson might hold a slight edge over Tuukka Rask.

The Bruins should hold a slight edge in the special teams department though. Yes, I mentioned above the Leafs have the second best power play in the league, but the Bruins are right behind them with the fourth best power play in the league. They’ve converted 23.6% of their opportunities to the Leafs 25%. And the Bruins penalty kill was 3rd in the league, killing 83.3%, while the Leafs came in at 10th with a killing percentage of 81.4%.

Ultimately we all know in the playoffs you have to throw a lot of what happened in the regular season out the window. Certain players rise above expectations, and some shrivel. We just don’t know who yet. I really think the Bruins/Leafs series is going to go the distance. And if that’s the case it would be nice at some point soon if the Bruins could get out to an early lead instead of playing from behind all the time.

Even though this is not the match up that most Bruins fans wanted, I still feel the Bruins prevail. It just may be more of a battle than you think.

Bruins in 7.

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