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Game Preview: The Boston Bruins roll into town

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Can the Leafs stop the bleeding on a Saturday night?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Bruins @ Toronto Maple Leafs: 7:00pm

Watch on: Sportsnet/CBC

Opponent’s site: Stanley Cup of Chowder

After a loss on the road to the Washington Capitals, the Leafs have had two days to reflect and prepare for the incoming Bruins, who are 5-2 on the season.

Maple Leaf Lines

Forwards

Andreas Johnsson - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Mitchell Marner
Trevor Moore - Jason Spezza - Kasperi Kapanen
Dmytro Timashov - Nick Shore - Frederik Gauthier
Scratched: Nic Petan
Injured: Zach Hyman

Defense

Morgan Rielly - Cody Ceci
Jake Muzzin - Tyson Barrie
Martin Marincin - Justin Holl
Scratched: Kevin Gravel
Injured: Travis Dermott

Goalies

Frederik Andersen
Michael Hutchinson

Obviously, the major storyline tonight is the absence of John Tavares, who is out with a broken finger (which he scored a goal with anyways, because he’s a badass). Alexander Kerfoot steps up, and his line will get the toughest of tough assignments tonight, as they’ll have to do their best to contain the death line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Kerfoot has been dealing with tough matchups all year, but this is the most difficult assessment, against the generally accepted best line in the world.

There is also a lot of pressure on Auston Matthews and his group. They’ve had stellar results to start the season, at least in terms of shot and expected goal differentials, which is part of the reason Mike Babcock opts to not separate them in the wake of Tavares’ injury. But they need to keep it up, and make sure that the Leafs still have a top line that is the envy of 28 other NHL teams.

Andersen will be in net tonight, and will need to be on top form for the Leafs to grab something from the contest.

Boston Bruins Lines

From the loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday

Forwards

Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - David Pastrnak
Jake Debrusk - Charlie Coyle - Karson Kuhlman
Danton Heinen - Par Lindholm - Brett Ritchie
Chris Wagner - Sean Kuraly - David Backes

Defense

Zdeno Chara - Charlie McAvoy
Torey Krug - Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk - Connor Clifton

Goalies

Tuukka Rask
Jaroslav Halak

As always, Boston’s forward depth does not look imposing after their top group, at least not from an offensive perspective. This is made more true by the injury to David Krejci who would otherwise be manning that 2C spot, pushing everyone down a peg in the process. Danton Heinen and Jake Debrusk are solid players, but outside of that top line, there’s no one who completely terrifies you offensively. That said, Boston’s forwards are almost all strong defensively, helped by a suffocating system instituted by Bruce Cassidy which means opposing forwards rarely have time on the puck, and almost never have space either.

Of course, we all know about that top line - no need to spill any more digital ink on them. They’re the best group in the world, and your hopes to beat the Bruins live and die with how well you contain them. They use puck movement (particularly east-west movement) brilliantly and three players in that group have dangerous shots that can beat goalies from distance. As alluded to, though, the rest of Boston’s forwards are generally not going to wreak havoc offensively.

On defence, the Bruins are similar to last year. Zdeno Chara is another year older, and looks to extend his record for uncalled interference penalties against the Leafs. Charlie McAvoy is a true top-pair defender, who the Bruins have annoyingly signed to an exceedingly reasonable deal (what’s that like?). Krug and Carlo are a fine second pair who complement each other well, and Grzelcyk and Clifton tend to get good results in relatively more sheltered minutes.

This year, Boston has dominated the shot clock to a tune of a 53% CF% and FF%. However, their xG% is notably worse - all the way down to 47%. Interestingly, this decline occurs because Boston’s relative standing in both xGF and xGA is worse than their standing in CF/FF and CA/FA. This scale of deviation almost never lasts throughout a season, and with the small sample of games (and the issues that have been noted with shot location this season), I tend to put more stock into the former set of numbers than the latter. That said, it is worth noting that there’s no reason to think some teams have been more impacted than others by the NHLs shot recording snafu, and thus leaguewide comparisons for the 2019/20 season should still be intact.

If we do believe the shot numbers as opposed to the more unreliable expected goal numbers, then Boston appears the same as it ever was. Excellent defensively, good enough offensively, with a line that can turn games on its head like few others in the league can that pushes them into the realm of legitimate contenders. It’s worth remembering that a healthy Leafs team is just about as good as Boston, though in a different way.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a healthy Leafs team tonight, which makes Boston the slight favourite. Nonetheless, it’s hockey, and the Leafs have been playing well to start the year. If they keep that going, they give themselves a chance to win.