Boston Bruins' Tyler Seguin scores on Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer during the shootout in Boston's 3-2 win in an NHL hockey game in Boston on Monday, March 25, 2013.
Photograph by: AP Photo/Winslow Townson, Postmedia News
TORONTO — And so it’s David versus Goliath.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who qualified for the playoffs for the first time in nine years, will face the Boston Bruins in the first round after the latter lost 4-2 to the Ottawa Senators in the final game of the season Sunday night.
Instead of facing Montreal as anticipated, Toronto has a matchup that will pit Phil Kessel against Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic against Dion Phaneuf, and youth versus experience. For the Leafs, who are 1-8-1 in the last two years against the Bruins, it will be a challenge like no other.
“You can’t be picking the playoff teams, because that can come back to bite you,” Leafs assistant general manager Claude Loiselle said Sunday. “You have to worry about your own team, because that’s the most important thing. Make sure all your ducks are in a row and you’re mentally and physically ready to play.”
In a makeup game that determined whether Toronto would play Boston or Montreal — as well as the fate of three other playoff series — the Bruins’ loss to Ottawa dropped them to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Senators moved up to seventh and will play the second-place Canadiens.
The Leafs will play Game 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven series in Boston, while Games 3 and 4 will be played in Toronto.
It is the first time since 1974 that these two Original Six teams will meet in the playoffs. The notable history between the teams, though, is more recent, whether it is the trade that sent Kessel to Toronto or the way that Bruins have manhandled the Leafs since then.
Of course, if you had to focus on just one thing to watch in the first round — which would have been true no matter who the Leafs played — it is Toronto goaltender James Reimer.
Not that this is revelatory. Saying that a goaltender will decide a playoff series is like telling those who study analytics that shots on net will decide the success of a hockey team.
It just so happens that the Leafs had the worst shot differential than any other playoff team this season, so Reimer’s workload is likely going to be more than Tuukka Rask’s. But even if Toronto did not rank fourth-last in the NHL by allowing 32.3 shots per game, Reimer would still be the centre of attention for the simple reason that he is 25 years old and has yet to make his playoff debut.
Will he steal the series and put the trade rumours to rest? Will he crack under the pressure and force the Leafs to find a replacement in the summer? Will he be the difference one way or another?
“We don’t need them to be superhuman,” goalie coach Rick St. Croix said of Reimer and backup goalie Ben Scrivens. “We just need them to be themselves. They’re good, young men and they’ve played well for us. Just give us your game and enjoy the process.”
That appears to be the mantra, not only for Reimer but also the Leafs, who are in the post-season for the first time since 2004. That they did it with one of the youngest rosters in the NHL is an indication that this could be the start of something special. The question is whether that something special will occur this year or whether players like Reimer, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk need more time to make mistakes and mature.
The former has been on display recently, with the Leafs heading into the playoffs having lost four of their last six games by a combined score of 19-8 (Of course, the Bruins also finished the season having lost seven of their last nine). By no means has Reimer, who was pulled in the regular-season finale against the Canadiens on Saturday after allowing four goals on 23 shots, been the cause of Toronto’s struggles down the stretch. But his 49-save win against the Senators a week ago showed just how much the team relies on him to steal games.
Now, he has to do it in the playoffs.
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