Nick Goss

Another Bruins vs. Leafs playoff series would be highly entertaining

Could we see a fourth first-round postseason series between the Bruins and Leafs in April?

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BOSTON -- The Bruins haven't played their best hockey since the NHL All-Star break, and it could potentially cost them first place in the Atlantic Division and one of the Eastern Conference's top-two seeds in the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That might actually turn out to be a positive for the B's, though, because the longer the Florida Panthers sit atop the division, the likelihood of the Bruins playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round increases.

And if Thursday night's Bruins-Leafs matchup at TD Garden was any indication of what a playoff series between these teams would look like in April, then sign us up.

That was 60 minutes of highly entertaining hockey.

It's clear these two teams don't like each other one bit, and it took less than four minutes for the action to get heated. Jake McCabe cross-checked both Jake DeBrusk and Brad Marchand to put the Leafs on the penalty kill.

The Bruins made the Leafs pay with a 5-on-3 power-play goal by David Pastrnak to open the scoring. Marchand appeared to have a message for the Leafs' bench after the goal.

These teams combined for 26 penalty minutes in the second period alone, with multiple post-whistle scrums erupting. Leafs forward Tyler Bertuzzi, who unsurprisingly was in the middle of several tussles, fought Bruins defenseman Parker Wotherspoon in the period.

Even Jeremy Swayman got involved in an altercation that started at the top of his crease in the second period. The Bruins netminder also wanted to fight Leafs goalie Joseph Wall in the third period after a scrum in Toronto's zone, but the challenge wasn't accepted.

The final tally showed 91 hits and 50 penalty minutes for both teams combined. Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe called it "by far" the most physical game they've played all season.

The Bruins ultimately prevailed with a 4-1 win, sweeping the four-game season series. It was Boston's seventh consecutive victory over Toronto, an opponent the Bruins have owned over the last 10 years, including three first-round playoff series triumphs in 2013, 2018 and 2019.

"It was just an emotional game, for both sides," Marchand said in the locker room postgame. "They brought it as well. It kind of starts when you get cross-checked in the face, in the throat pretty early. That's going to get anyone kind of riled up. From that point forward, it was an emotional game all the way through for both teams. They saw (Max) Domi going after a couple guys, Bertuzzi and Wotherspoon had a great fight. That was a playoff-type game and a fun one to be part of."

The Leafs are absolutely loaded up front. Auston Matthews is on his way to another 60-goal season and maybe his second Hart Trophy. William Nylander (34 goals), Mitch Marner (25 goals) and John Tavares (19 goals) help provide plenty of offensive firepower. Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Matthew Knies give the Leafs more scoring depth than they've had in a while.

So it's no surprise that Toronto ranks No. 2 in the league in goals scored per game (3.58) and power-play percentage (27.6). Seven Leafs players have scored 10 or more goals.

Where the Leafs still struggle is defensively. They rank 20th in goals against per game (3.14) and 22nd on the penalty kill (77.5 percent). The Leafs simply do not have enough high-end talent on the blue line to beat top teams like the Bruins in a best-of-7 series.

They've made two moves ahead of Friday's trade deadline to bolster their defensive corps, acquiring Ilya Lyubushkin from the Ducks and Joel Edmundson from the Capitals. These two additions improve the physicality and penalty killing on the Leafs' blue line, but neither player is a real difference-maker. Edmundson is a sixth, seventh or eighth d-man on a true contender at this stage of his career. Lyubushkin has plenty of weaknesses in his game, too.

Goaltending is another concern for the Leafs. They rank 24th in save percentage (.894) and 18th in high-danger save percentage. The Bruins rank third in both save percentage and high-danger save percentage. Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark have yet to prove themselves as postseason stalwarts, but you'd have to favor either one of them over the Leafs' netminding trio of Ilya Samsonov, Joseph Woll and Martin Jones.

The Bruins have problems, too, there's no question about it. Their penalty kill has struggled of late. They've blown way too many third-period leads, some of their middle-six forwards are very inconsistent offensively, and they could use some more physicality on the blue line.

But in this particular matchup, which we might see again for potentially seven games in April, the Bruins have a clear edge physically, mentally and experience-wise. And until the Leafs prove they can beat the Bruins with any consistency, it's hard to see Boston's recent dominance against Toronto decreasing all that much come playoff time.

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