Toronto Maple Leafs @ Boston Bruins
07:00 PM at TD Garden

I'm throwing out the script today. No lines, no guesses about goalies, no quotes of coaches duelling in vagueness. You never know until gametime who is really in and who isn't as each coach tries to roleplay military disinformation campaigns where both sides' cyphers are broken and everyone knows that the other side knows that they know that we're listening in. That got old by game two.

You may have noticed that I never wrote a post that was a series preview. I never talked about odds or team strength or a line-by-line comparison or any of that. I never wrote out fantasy lines no coach would ever use. I didn't say which defenders should play, and I didn't express an opinion on the goalies. I didn't try to pump up the league's most depressed fans.

I've done that before. I remember vividly writing a post back when the Leafs first made the playoffs... er, when I say Leafs I mean the team since 2016. I don't believe guys wearing the same shirt in years past merit consideration... anyhow, I had to write a post basically giving people permission to cheer for the team. To be happy. To enjoy seeing baby Auston Matthews in the playoffs. Not this year.

Don't immediately put me in a box labeled pessimist, though. Partly I'm just really tired of the nihilistic doom spiral of elitist pessimism so I avoided the topic. But I also watch every game with my eyes open. Okay, there was one of those New Jersey games at the end of the season that I didn't even watch at all. I won't tell you if I wrote the recap, though.

Eyes open. no prideful boasting about how specially doomed I am because of the Leafs. No grievance, no resentment. No conspiracy theories and no secret wish the Leafs lose so I can rant about how this confirms all my priors. This is what I thought before Game 1:

Two things are true at the big picture level. The Leafs improved in measures of possession like Corsi or Expected Goals over the course of the year. They rose up the league rankings, but they never stopped having specific sorts of problems in the defensive zone. What changed was largely how much offence they created when they did have the puck, and how often the trouble in the defensive zone reared up and ate half a period.

Teams ran the Leafs out of time a lot. Good teams. Get a lead, and take your foot off the gas, bank your energy, save your body for another day. And the Leafs players, the core, the rest of them – they have grown as people since those games against Montréal, or so it appears. They can come back. They will tie the game. Flip the coin and they might win it. But as a regular season tactic, it got a lot of teams easy wins against a Leafs team that worked themselves to exhaustion trying to tie it back up.

So start with the intestinal fortitude, add in some more time with the puck and ladle on the gravy of goalies who weren't whatever Ilya Samsonov was in December, and you have a playoff team. No doubt.

Pause for a second and do a thought experiment. Think of something you are good at. You've worked at it, you understand the process, you're an expert. Now imagine doing that with five people raucously trying to stop you. (Yes I know, if you have kids, you don't have to imagine, but imagine five of the little terrors.) How good do you look now? Now imagine those five people are actually a little better than you at your thing, and while they're stopping you, they can also do your thing at least as well if not better a lot of the time. That's what hockey is.

So spare me the "seems like they aren't trying". Trust me, when a team folds in the playoffs, you can see it, and it's not anything like a team that struggles against the five guys trying to stop them playing but fails to find a way through. To put this in concrete terms, is the alleged increase in dump and chase a strategic choice or a tactical inevitability because of how the other team plays?

Failure is part of the game, just like randomness is, and it does amaze me still that people can spend years watching hockey, and never feel a dent in their certainty that the universe is the moral arbiter of value. That character wins. Good lord, so many assholes have won the Stanley Cup, it should likely have a warning label on it. Guys were high or drunk or smoking a pack a day. They were hungover and out of shape and willfully refused to do anything but offence. Good manly virtues, I'm sure.

To make this a little less theoretical, the Bruins, in my view – no wait. I can't call them the Bruins, because that's some kind of brand or anthropomorphized being divorced from reality in your minds. It's made up of a mass of teams going back over a decade to when they last won the Cup, plus all the scary teams since or before, that were just guys in the same shirt and not relevant to the team on the ice tonight.

This team the Leafs play tonight has some very big weaknesses. They lack skill in several areas, and they have to compensate for that. Their defence is actually pretty mediocre. Their offensive success needs broken plays and odd-man rushes. They can't really cycle like the Leafs can at will. But they play in their own zone in a way that lets them get those offensive chances the other way, while breaking up the Leafs' offence and keeping the passes from connecting a lot of the time.

Overall, the Leafs are so good that they are winning the five-on-five game by a large margin. That game is, of course, to get more scoring chances than you allow. The Leafs power play – well, there's little to be gained in talking about a power play when lack of goals makes people froth over with anger. But the issue is that the Leafs are not very good at the PK and the Bruins really, really are. They didn't, if I might be a little bitter for a second, look for depth guys to chip in with goals while being unaware totally of how to play hockey. They got simple positionally sound players who are also quick and can play the style of PK the Leafs used to have way back a year ago.

And now we come to the thing that at some point today, likely, and continuing on if the Leafs win or lose, will engender angry cries about making excuses.

Jeremy Swayman is the best goalie in the playoffs and it's not close. Sergei Bobrovsky wore that crown last year, although he was bested by Jack Campbell of all people, who only played four game. Bob saved 16 goals over expected in the 19 games he appeared in last year. Swayman has 8 already.

You can, if you want to backfill your belief that the Leafs aren't trying, make up a story where the Leafs are just shooting at the goalie's pads. That one's easy to sell, since a very good goalie gets his pads in front of a lot of pucks. But I absolutely question if the kind of offence the Jets are allowing the Avs to swamp them with could take Swayman as he's playing right now.

So what does that all mean: It means I didn't expect the Leafs to win, but I didn't count them out either. You don't know, no matter how practiced the pessimism, you never know with this game. You never know which goalie will go on a heater, who will get hurt, who will shoot 34 times to get one goal (or 30 {so washed, though}). I have a lot of thoughts on what's wrong (spoiler: it's not just one thing) and a lot of questions about how to fix it (spoiler: you can't fire your way out of this one entirely), but now is not the time.

Whoever plays for the Leafs, if Matthews is well enough, whichever goalie is chosen, if Nylander is still well enough, whoever you are, I might get irritated with you, but I'm still cheering for you. You know how to give it your all. Of this I have no doubt.

Win it, Leafs.