It’s doubtful that the Toronto Maple Leafs will be looking at Game 6 of their opening round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Boston Bruins this way but all of a sudden they are Canada’s only chance for a deep playoff run. The St. Louis Blues eliminated the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night to win their best of 7 series 4-2. The Blues were one of the hottest teams in the league in the second half of the season while Winnipeg limped to the finish line winning only 4 of their last 12 games dating back to the regular season.
The Calgary Flames might have a bit more to feel bad about. They won the Western Conference regular season title with the second best record in franchise history. The 1988-89 Flames were 10 points better in the regular season and much better in the postseason, beating the Montreal Canadiens in six games to win the Stanley Cup. This year, the Flames were unceremoniously in five games by the Colorado Avalanche including a 5-1 embarrassment on home ice in Game 5. This was nowhere near the upset that Tampa’s tank job to Columbus was–the Flames’ goaltending struggled all year and the Avs might have the best top line in the NHL with Nathan Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Other people are finally starting to realize what hockey cognoscenti have known for the past year or so–MacKinnon belongs in the same conversation as Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby for the best all around player in the league.
That leaves the Toronto Maple Leafs with the weight of Canada’s Stanley Cup hopes on their shoulders. The Leafs took a hard fought Game 5 in Boston last time out and can advance with a victory here. Toronto and Boston both struggled down the stretch in the regular season though the Leafs were especially bad losing 5 of their last 6 games. They finished just 7 points behind Boston in the regular season and due to Tampa Bay’s running away with the Eastern Conference title it’s easy to forget how much parity there was between the rest of the playoff teams. A total of 9 points separate the #2 seeded Bruins from the #8 seeded Blue Jackets.
What has to be especially frustrating for the Bruins is that the past two Toronto wins in the series came in games where the style of play and tempo theoretically should have favored Boston. The Leafs won 4-1 in Game 1 but have since took gritty one goal wins in Games 3 (3-2) and 5(2-1). Credit has to go to Frederik Anderson who might not be on the same level as Boston’s Tuuka Rask but has raised his game to that level during this series when the Leafs needed him to do so. Toronto likely views it as imperative to close out the series at the Air Canada Centre but should there be a Game 7 in Boston they have to be fairly confident with two wins there already in the series.
Historically, NHL teams playing Game 6 of a best of 7 series at home are 52.9% winners. That improves to 85.7% for first round series though with an extremely small sample size. The Bruins’ series record when trailing 3-2 in a series isn’t very good–only 3 times have they gone on to advance in 23 chances. Toronto has a 19-5 series record when up 3-2. The conventional wisdom since the hockey fortunes in Toronto started to turn around with Auston Matthews has been that the team is ‘a year or two away’. That might be true, but they’re already taking the measure of the Bruins. Toronto has won 14 of 24 head to head in the past three years including 8 of 11 at the Air Canada Centre. During the past decade or so the Bruins have typically been a very good road performer but are just 20-15-6 (or 21-20) this year.
Boston entered the postseason with a banged up defensive unit and although most of the top 6 is back in the lineup there might be some lingering effects that aren’t being reported to the media. Kevan Miller is still out of action and listed as being sidelined indefinitely. Connor Clifton–nominally Miller’s replacement on the blueline–is also injured. The biggest problem for the Bruins is that the Leafs are playing with more energy and intensity and that is a tough thing to fix on short notice. Toronto gets the win at home and keeps Canada’s playoff hockey hopes alive.