Tuesday’s slate of NHL games was fantastic, featuring a bouquet of potential playoff previews that held huge psychological implications for more meaningful battles in the very near future. Steven Stamkos’s overtime winner put the Lightning over the Hurricanes. Igor Shesterkin and the Rangers edged the Penguins, 3-2. Valeri Nichushkin sneaked the Colorado Avalanche past the Calgary Flames in a tight 2-1 affair. And of course, the Florida Panthers took down the defending Stanley Cup runners-up, the Montreal Canadi—oh, what’s that? Ah. Never mind.
The most baggage-laden match-up on the card, however, was the Toronto Maple Leafs taking on the Bruins in Boston, where they picked up a satisfying 6-4 victory over their streaking rivals. Despite losing goalie Petr Mrazek to a groin injury in the first period, the Leafs powered through with third-string rookie Erik Kallgren between the pipes, getting important goals from depth guys like David Kampf and the newly acquired Colin Blackwell, plus the usual suspects in Marner and Matthews, as they built up a 6-1 lead and kept it together even as Boston scored the game’s final three goals.
But more notable than the scoring was the chippiness befitting a couple of longtime division rivals. Particularly as the Bruins went down big, the battle for the mental advantage led to some real consequences for the Leafs and set the stage for fireworks down the road. Aside from the Mrazek injury, which was nobody’s fault, the Leafs also lost a pair of defensemen, Justin Holl and Ilya Lyubushkin, during the second period. Holl got tied up with Charlie Coyle by his own crease, on a play where both men could have been whistled for penalties, and when he fell right in front of his goalie he ended up taking a puck off his head. More blatantly shitty was Taylor Hall’s retaliatory punch from behind on Lyubushkin after the Bruins forward got checked down by the boards.
So much more happened, too. Toronto’s Michael Bunting went to the box on three separate occasions, twice on offsetting incidents with Bruins players. Brad Marchand, who’s normally so self-possessed, got a misconduct penalty for something he said to the officials at the end of the second period after a confrontation with Leafs captain John Tavares. And plenty of hard hits, from both sides, permeated the action from start to finish. This one was just kind of funny, though.
Both fanbases, famously two of the gentlest and most rational in sports, reacted normally and calmly to all of this.
Personally, out of all the post-game quotes, I liked Toronto forward Alexander Kerfoot’s passive-aggression the most. “If they want to go around and do that, they’re more than welcome to,” he said. “It doesn’t bother us at all.”
It would not bother me at all if we saw more of this later in the spring. As it stands right now in the Atlantic, the Panthers have the inside track on the top seed, but the Lightning, Leafs, and Bruins are all separated by just three points below them, each with the same 66 games played. While Toronto and Boston are certainly talented enough to survive until a potential second- or third-round showdown, it remains a very real possibility that the two could be dance partners in the first round. And wouldn’t that be something. The playoff history between the Bruins and Leafs dates back nearly a century, with the Bruins winning the last six series, but the current rivalry is juiced primarily by the three first-round meetings they’ve had since 2013. In each of those, including back-to-back years in ’18 and ’19, the Leafs have lost Game 7 in Boston, making the Bruins key contributors to their 16-season playoff series win drought, and by extension their league-high 53-season run without lifting the Cup.
This is yet another strong, exciting, promising Leafs unit—particularly if top netminder Jack Campbell is healthy—and each year it feels like they get more and more hellbent on breaking one or both of their unwanted streaks. It would be perfect, then, if the Bruins once again stood in their way. Nothing would be more stressful for Leafs fans than having to exorcise the Boston demons in these playoffs, and unless and until they get to the Final themselves, nothing could be more satisfying than finally beating their tormentors. They’ve done all right for themselves so far this season, winning 5-2 in November and then getting the two points on Tuesday. But in the playoffs it’s only going to get more vicious and exhausting, and heartbreaking for someone. Let’s make it happen, OK?