BOSTON (CBS) — It’s very easy to feel down about the Boston Bruins right now.
They limped into the playoffs with an uninspiring 2-5-2 record in their final nine games, capped off with an overtime loss in Washington on Saturday and a regulation loss to Ottawa on Sunday to miss out on a division title and the No. 2 seed in the East. It was the final chapter of an odd season that saw the Bruins start out 19-4-3, only to finish 9-10-3.
So it’s not outrageous to be lacking confidence in this Bruins team heading into the playoffs, which begin Wednesday night at the TD Garden. But if you’re feeling down about the team’s chances, here are four reasons to help you feel better about the Bruins’ chances for their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The area where the Bruins have the biggest edge is between the pipes. Among goalies with at least 25 starts this season, Tuukka Rask ranked second in the NHL with a .929 save percentage and third with a 2.00 goals-against average. He also tied for the league lead with five shutouts.
The Maple Leafs will be going with James Reimer, who posted a 2.46 GAA and .924 save percentage in 31 starts this season. His regular season ended by getting pulled in the middle of a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Saturday night, which was the 11th time this season Reimer allowed four or more goals in a game. By contrast, Rask allowed four or more goals just five times this year, and he hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game since March 27.
Overall Rask is the better goalie, but Reimer did play extremely well in his three starts against the Bruins this season. His 1-1-1 record against Boston is misleading, as he stopped 91 of 96 shots for a .948 save percentage and 1.63 GAA in the three games. That’s a vast improvement from the previous year, when Reimer posted an embarrassing 6.60 GAA and .795 save percentage in two games against the Bruins.
Still, considering that Reimer’s season ended with him allowing 14 goals in his final five starts of the year, Reimer is under immense pressure to convince the Maple Leafs and their fans that he can be the man to deliver the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 2004.
2. Chara v. Kessel
Phil Kessel had an outstanding season for the Leafs this year, leading the team with 20 goals and 52 points. It was the first season in which Kessel finished with more than a point per game, after he finished last year with 82 points in 82 games. The 25-year-old has been everything the Leafs could have wanted the past two seasons … except when he’s playing against his former team.
Kessel recorded exactly zero of his 52 points during his four games against the Bruins this year, when he was a minus-4 and managed to get fewer than two shots on net per game.
A lot of that has to do with the work of Zdeno Chara, whom Claude Julien employs to limit the Leafs’ most dangerous goal scorer from doing what he wants. It’s been a theme for Kessel since he was traded to Toronto, as he has 3-6-9 totals and a minus-22 rating in 22 career games against the Bruins, and he has zero even-strength goals.
While past results are never necessarily a direct indicator of the future, that’s a pretty hefty sample size that says Chara and the Bruins should be able to keep the Leafs’ most dangerous offensive weapon at bay.
3. Playoff Experience
Having experience in the playoffs doesn’t mean everything, but it definitely means something. And the Bruins have plenty of it.
The players who make up the expected regular lineup for the Bruins have 1,141 postseason games on their combined resume.
The entire Maple Leafs roster has a combined 235 games of playoff experience.
The hockey is unquestionably different in the playoffs. Every shift is more intense, every hit is harder and mistakes are magnified — particularly in a hockey-crazed location like Toronto. Not everyone can handle it, and the pressure can take time to adjust. It’s safe to say that the Bruins are built to handle it a lot better than the Leafs.
Many Bruins players, through good times and bad this season, were quick to say that a lot of guys in the locker room today were there in 2011. That didn’t turn out to be all that helpful during the regular season, but now’s the time for the Bruins to prove that they know how to handle themselves in the playoffs.
4. The Matchup
The Bruins’ advantage extends beyond shutting down Kessel, too. The Bruins went 3-1-0 against Toronto this year after going a perfect 6-0 against the Leafs last year, outscoring Toronto 45-17 in the past two seasons.
Just like with Kessel’s ineffectiveness, that’s not a small sample size, where a few bounces one way or the other could skew results. Boston just simply owwwnnnns the Leafs.
Obviously, the Leafs have improved a great deal since last year, when they finished near the bottom of the conference. Still, they haven’t proven to be able to beat the Bruins, so doing it four times in seven games just doesn’t seem likely.