BOSTON – Phil Kessel will be the center of attention throughout the Maple Leafs’ first-round series against the Bruins, and rightly so. Beyond the obvious storyline about him facing the team that traded him four years ago for a pair of first-round picks that turned out to be Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, there’s the fact that Kessel might be the most important player in the series.
Kessel caught fire down the stretch, registering 10 goals and seven assists in Toronto’s final 10 games. He’s been involved in 10 of the team’s last 17 goals. That run has elevated him all the way to seventh in the NHL in scoring with 52 points on the season. None of those 52 points came against the Bruins, though. In four games against his former team, Kessel was held off the scoresheet while posting a minus-4 rating.
That continued a troubling trend that Kessel would like to put an end to, and the Bruins would like to keep going. The 25-year-old winger has just three goals, six assists and a minus-22 rating in 22 career games against the Bruins. A big reason for those struggles, both literally and figuratively, is the guy he’ll be matched up against for the majority of the series — Zdeno Chara.
Chara will likely be paired with fellow defensive stalwart Dennis Seidenberg, as he has been for each of the past two postseasons. Those two will be tasked with containing Kessel’s line, one that doesn’t appear to be set yet. Kessel has played alongside center Tyler Bozak for most of the season, but Bozak missed the final two regular-season games with an upper-body injury and is considered day-to-day.
Moving up to replace Bozak was Nazem Kadri, who finished second on the team with 44 points despite scoring just one goal in the Leafs’ final 12 games. Expect either Joffrey Lupul or James van Riemsdyk to play left wing on the Kessel line. Whatever Toronto’s top line ends up being, the Bruins could match reigning Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron against it along with Chara and Seidenberg, or they could save Bergeron for the second line.
Either way, the very real possibility that the Bruins could once again make life miserable for Kessel means the Leafs may need other guys to step up. Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski have all underachieved this season, but they’ll be called upon to take some of the scoring burden off the top line’s shoulders.
Speaking of underachieving, the Bruins have done quite a bit of that themselves over the last month and a half. They’ve gone 9-10-3 since St. Patrick’s Day, and just 2-5-2 over the final nine games. The biggest problem has been offense. Over those final nine games, they’ve scored two goals or fewer eight times.
A lot has been made of the struggles of Milan Lucic (three goals since the start of March) and the recently banged-up Nathan Horton (one point in his last eight games), but you can go up and down the lineup and find a lot of that. David Krejci has three points in the last 13 games. Bergeron has one point in his last 10. Leading goal-scorer Brad Marchand has two goals in the last eight games. Seguin has none in the last five.
One of the lone bright spots for the Bruins has been Jaromir Jagr, who has nine points in 11 games since being acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline. The question is whether Claude Julien will actually put Jagr on one of the top two lines or leave him on the third unit.
The good news for the Boston offense is that Toronto gives up a ton of shots — the fourth most in the NHL, to be exact. The bad news is that getting shots hasn’t been the Bruins’ problem. They took the second most in the league this season, but wound up in the middle of the pack in scoring.
On top of that, James Reimer has proven throughout the season that he can bail out Toronto’s defense and cover up many of their mistakes. The 24-year-old netminder bounced back from a disappointing 2011-12 season to finish eighth in the league with a .924 save percentage this year.
At the other end of the ice, Tuukka Rask (a Leafs first-round pick back in 2005) has put together a great season as well. His .929 save percentage ranks third in the league. With questions surrounding both offenses, and two stellar goalies anchoring their teams, the potential is there for this to be a low-scoring series. In fact, I expect it will be.
To me, this series comes down to which offense gets going first. Will Kessel finally break through against Chara and the rest of his former team? Will other Leafs step up if he doesn’t? Will the Bruins’ top two lines snap out of their lackluster play?
I really wouldn’t be surprised if the answer to all three of those questions is no. But, perhaps against my better judgment, I can’t help but think the Bruins will get it going just enough to survive this series.
Prediction: Bruins in 7