Another Bruins vs. Leafs playoff series in 2023 would be real treat for NHL fans

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Another Bruins-Leafs playoff series in 2023 would be real treat for fans originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON -- Outside of TD Garden on Saturday night the snow was falling and temperatures were in the thirties. A typical January winter night in the City of Boston.

But inside the building it felt a lot like spring -- a raucous, energetic crowd and two rivals in the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs playing one of the most entertaining games of the 2022-23 season so far.

Put simply, it very much felt like a playoff game.

"Definitely a playoff atmosphere. Definitely an intense and hostile environment," Leafs forward Auston Matthews said postgame. "We know the points at stake and obviously everybody is trying to catch these guys (the Bruins). They've been really good all year. These are the games you want to make good on. We just didn't tonight."

The Bruins won 4-3, overcoming deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 before eventually winning on a late third-period goal by defenseman Matt Grzelcyk. The victory improved Boston's record to a league-best 33-5-4 and opened up its lead in the race for the Presidents' Trophy to 10 points.

"I just liked how we all stuck together out there," Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said. "They did, too. There's players on their team that certain guys on our team don't like, and I'm sure it's the same way (with Toronto). That's what makes a rivalry and that's why it was such a heated, good hockey game."

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Saturday's game had the type of hostility usually seen in the playoffs. Both teams were eager to make a statement. The Bruins wanted to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time all year and avenge their Nov. 5 loss up in Toronto. The Leafs aimed to send a message to the Bruins and the rest of the league by joining a small handful of opponents that have won in Boston this season, while making the Atlantic Division race a little more competitive.

The blood was boiling right from the opening faceoff. Just a few minutes into the game Bruins forward Nick Foligno and Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds dropped their gloves for a very entertaining and lengthy fight. It was the first of many scrums and altercations.

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At the end of the second period, both teams lingered on the ice as fisticuffs broke out. Simmonds, again, was in the middle of it. Him and A.J. Greer exchanged words and both were given 10-minute misconducts to begin the third period.

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These teams combined to score seven goals and tally 69 scoring chances and 61 hits. The action was fast-paced, physical and emotional. What more could you want from two rivals that don't like each other?

"It did (feel like a playoff game). It did. That's what, going into it, the mindset we had," Bruins center Charlie Coyle said. "We knew what type of game it was going to be. We couldn't afford to come in and just dip our foot in. Jump right in and play our game and get to it.

"It's not always going to go our way right from the start, but we stuck with it and had some good responses tonight. Guys doing little things, details. Foligno going in and having a good tilt there (against Simmonds). That energized us, and Linus (Ullmark) doing his thing coming up with some huge saves and all of a sudden we go down there and (score). It's a huge momentum boost."

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The Leafs haven't won a playoff series since 2004. They've lost in the first round in six consecutive seasons. Three of their last seven first-round exits dating back to 2013 have come against the Bruins. This Leafs team does have the look of a different group, though. They are really hard to play against with their fast, physical and swarming style of play. They have elite high-end skill up front and more experienced and reliable defensemen on the back end. The goaltending duo of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov has been surprisingly very good. Murray won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Toronto actually entered this matchup with a four-game win streak over Boston. The B's last win versus the Leafs was Oct. 22, 2019. The Leafs aren't afraid of the Bruins or playing at the Garden, and that was evident in the way they played Saturday.

"They've definitely gotten better," Bruins forward Brad Marchand told reporters after Saturday's morning skate. "Over the last couple years they've brought some (defensemen) in that are more responsible and harder to play against, and a little bigger and more physical. They're a legit contender this year. The last few years it hasn't gone their way, but every year you go through adversity like they have, you learn a lot from it. I think they've done that. Their stars are another year older and stronger and better. They're a very dangerous team."

We both know we might have to go through each other to advance in the playoffs at some point this year.

Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery

The Bruins and Leafs still have two more meetings left on the regular season schedule -- Feb. 1 in Toronto and April 5 in Boston. Four total matchups between Original Six rivals is less than ideal, but if hockey fans are lucky, we could see the Bruins and Leafs square off in the playoffs for the fourth time this century come the spring time.

Who wouldn't want seven more games of what we saw Saturday night? If you look at the standings entering Sunday, it wouldn't be shocking if the Bruins and Leafs met in the second round of the playoffs. That said, there's a ton of hockey to be played before getting to that point, and nothing is guaranteed.

"We both know we might have to go through each other to advance in the playoffs at some point this year," Montgomery said. "There's another team down south in Tampa Bay that will have something to say about that. But we all know what's at stake when we play each other now."