The Leafs return to action tonight for the first of two games in a row against the Bruins. They haven’t beaten Boston in over two years, but hope home ice will provide them an advantage. You can catch the game at 7:00 pm EST on CBC’s flagship program, Hockey Night in Canada. An entire nation eagerly awaits the results of this game.
Here are four factors that could stand in the Leafs’ path to victory:
1) James Reimer will make his third consecutive start tonight. Over the last two games, he sports a 1-0-1 record with six goals scored against him. Reimer has been playing decent, if not spectacular, hockey since his return from injury, but the poor defensive play of the team in front of him has magnified his (many?) weaknesses. He also hasn’t been helped by the fact that the Leafs cannot score in the shootout. Instead of asking the obvious question (“Will Reimer prove a difference in the game?”), I’ll pose a different question: Does the Leafs’ continued reliance on Reimer confirm that he’s the team’s true starter? Here it’s important to remember that Reimer and Ben Scrivens carry similar stats, but the team keeps turning to Reimer over Scrivens. Reimer is slightly younger and bigger while Scrivens is slightly more experienced, bringing the Toronto Marlies to the Calder Cup final last season.
Reimer rewarded the coaching staff for their faith in him by stopping 31 of 33 shots to earn the Leafs’ first victory over Boston since March 31, 2011. It’s about time.
2) The Leafs’ struggles over the last seven games have been highlighted by an inability to clear pucks and win battles along the boards. Prior to this slump, however, the team generally excelled in the defence department, playing head coach Randy Carlyle’s preferred style of barnyard hockey. The Bruins’ are one of the NHL’s toughest teams and would easily exploit a weak Leafs team if given the chance. Toronto has likely been concentrating on the defensive part of their game over the last two weeks, but they need to show some immediate improvement to reverse their long losing streak against Boston. Do any of the recent lessons taught to them in Defence 101 finally stick?
The Leafs benefited from some fortunate bounces, but they also won many of the small battles that separate the good teams from the bad ones. Lessons learned.
3) Phil Kessel is riding a six game points streak (4 goals, 6 assists) while teammate Nazem Kadri is riding a three game points streak (2 goals, 6 assists). It would be nice to see Kessel overcome his notorious struggles against the Bruins. At the same time, it would be nice to see Kadri prove his lingering doubters wrong. Can Kessel and Kadri keep up the high offensive paces they’ve set for themselves?
Kessel’s point streak finally came to an end, but Kadri added another goal to keep up the pace.
4) No game against Boston is complete without considering the whatifs: what if Tuukka Rask, Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton were all wearing Leafs jerseys? It can be argued that these three players, who have clear connections to Toronto, would have easily solved the team’s current troubles in net, at center and along the blueline if the Leafs had better managed their young assets and high draft picks. Does the sting and burn of losing these young, dynamic players continue to show?
Rask made a late relief appearance for Anton Khudobin, stopping the two shots he faced. Neither Seguin nor Hamilton cracked the scorecard.
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