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Bruins vs. Leafs first-round playoff preview, odds and prediction

Bruins vs. Leafs first-round playoff preview, odds and prediction originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

A new chapter in one of the NHL's best rivalries will be written in the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Boston Bruins square off against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This will be the fourth time these Original Six franchises have met in the first round in the last 11 years. The Bruins emerged victorious over the Leafs with Game 7 victories in 2013, 2018 and 2019. All three of those clinching games were played at TD Garden, and if there's another Game 7 this year, it'll also be in Boston because the B's once again have home ice advantage in this No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup.

This series has all the makings of a classic. These teams score a lot of goals and they don't like each other one bit. This was evident in their fourth and final meeting of the regular season when the Bruins and Leafs combined for 91 hits and 50 penalty minutes, including two fights. Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe called it "by far" the most physical game his team had played at that point in the year.

Both teams enter this series with a lot of pressure and expectations. The Bruins once again had a strong regular season, but can they turn that success into playoff results? They have won only two playoff series since losing in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. They've lost in the first round back-to-back years.

The Leafs always face a ton of pressure just playing in the hockey-crazed Toronto market. It's also a huge series for the Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner-William Nylander core. This trio has just one playoff series win together and hasn't beaten the Bruins in two meetings.

Which team will emerge victorious? Here's a full playoff preview for Bruins vs. Leafs.

Series schedule

Game 1 at Boston: Saturday, April 20 at 8 p.m. on TBS

Game 2 at Boston: Monday, April 22 at 7 p.m. on ESPN

Game 3 at Toronto: Wednesday, April 24 at 7 p.m. on ESPN

Game 4 at Toronto: Saturday, April 27 at 8 p.m. on TBS

Game 5* at Boston: Tuesday, April 30 (time and channel TBD)

Game 6* at Toronto: Thursday, May 2 (time and channel TBD)

Game 7* at Boston: Saturday, May 4 (time and channel TBD)

*If necessary 

Regular season head-to-head

  • Nov. 2 at Boston: Bruins 3-2 in a shootout

  • Dec. 2 at Toronto: Bruins 4-3 in OT

  • March 4 at Toronto: Bruins 4-1

  • March 7 at Boston: Bruins 4-1

Tale of the Tape

Here's how the Bruins and Leafs compare in several important stats (NHL rank in parentheses).

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The Bruins win the series if...

They win the special teams battle.

Special teams could play a decisive role in this series, and the Bruins are well-equipped to earn the advantage in this facet of the game.

The Bruins had the No. 7 ranked penalty kill with a 82.5 percent success rate during the regular season. The Leafs had the No. 7 ranked power play, but that unit struggled against the Bruins and scored just one goal in 11 opportunities with the man-advantage. The Leafs also have fared pretty poorly on the power play over their last 22 games, scoring on just 13 percent (9-of-69) of their opportunities, which ranks 28th out of 32 teams during that span.

Boston's power play struggled mightily over the final 20 games of the regular season and scored just six times in 43 opportunities. But this unit found plenty of success against the Leafs' No. 24-ranked penalty kill with three power-play goals in four matchups this season.

This series is expected to be very physical. The referees won't want these games to get out of hand and could call a lot of penalties as a result. Whichever teams earns the edge on special teams likely will in the series.

The Leafs win the series if...

The goaltending shows massive improvement.

Lackluster goaltending has been a problem for the Leafs in recent playoff runs, and it could again be an issue in this series. Toronto netminders posted a .891 save percentage in four games versus Boston during the regular season. Ilya Samsonov has a 1-2-2 record with a .899 save percentage in seven games played against the B's in his career. Joseph Woll is 0-2-1 with a .865 save percentage and a 3.97 GAA in three career matchups vs. Boston.

The Leafs rank 22nd in save percentage and 18th in high-danger save percentage this season. They have mostly overcome their goaltending issues by scoring more goals than any other team. That recipe can be successful in the regular season, but it's harder to replicate in the playoffs when games become more physical and there are fewer scoring chances off the rush.

The Leafs won't win this series if their goaltending doesn't show meaningful improvement from the regular season.

Players to watch

David Pastrnak, RW, Bruins

Pastrnak put together another MVP-caliber season with 109 points (47 goals, 62 assists) in 81 games.

He also has absolutely owned the Leafs throughout his career. He has tallied 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists) in 28 career regular season games versus Toronto, plus another 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 14 career playoff matchups. Pastrnak scored two goals with five assists in four games against the Leafs during the regular season.

The Leafs have not been able to figure out a way to limit Pastrnak from consistently creating scoring chances for himself and teammates. If that doesn't change, it's hard to envision Toronto winning this series.

Jake DeBrusk, LW/RW, Bruins

DeBrusk has been very inconsistent in 2023-24, and he ended the regular season with only one goal in his last 11 games. The Bruins are not as deep as they were last season. They need secondary scorers such as DeBrusk to play a pivotal role offensively at even strength and the power play. This could be a high-scoring series, and the Bruins cannot rely on their top players to shoulder the large majority of the offensive burden.

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DeBrusk has enjoyed plenty of playoff success against the Leafs with nine points (six goals, three assists) in 14 career games, including a two-goal effort in a Game 7 win in 2018. That's the kind of DeBrusk the Bruins are hoping to get over the next two weeks.

It also should be noted that DeBrusk has an expiring contract, and a strong postseason could earn him more money in free agency.

Auston Matthews, C, Leafs

Matthews leads the league with 69 goals this season, and his 51 even-strength goals are the most by any player since the 1992-93 campaign. He also has added 38 assists for a career-high 107 points. Matthews is closing the regular season red-hot with goals in eight of his last nine games.

The superstar center has played quite well against the Bruins in his career with 29 points (18 goals, 11 assists) in 33 games, including the playoffs. He scored five goals with one assist in the 2019 first-round series that Boston won in seven games.

The Leafs have a lot of high-end offensive players, but Matthews is the engine that drives this team. He needs to have a stellar series for the Leafs to end their struggles against the Bruins in the postseason.

Tyler Bertuzzi, LW, Leafs

The ex-Bruin started the season slow, but he finished quite strong with 21 points (14 goals, seven assists) in his last 25 games.

The Bruins will try to impose their will against the Leafs and push them around. Bertuzzi is the Leafs player best able to push back and spark some energy in his teammates. He did just that back in March when he won a fight against B's defenseman Parker Wotherspoon in convincing fashion.

Bertuzzi had an excellent playoff resume in the AHL and played fantastic for the Bruins in their first-round series last season with 10 points (five goals, five assists) in seven games. He's been a big-game player at every level of hockey. That's the Bertuzzi the Leafs need in Round 1. They haven't had a power forward like him in their previous three playoff series vs. Boston this century.

Goalie breakdown

Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, Bruins

Goaltending will be a huge storyline for the Bruins all playoffs, and the decision on which player to start in Game 1 is a tough one for head coach Jim Montgomery and his staff. We also don't know whether the Bruins will ride the hot hand or alternate starters in a true goalie rotation, like they've done in the regular season most of the last two years.

Montgomery has seemed open to the idea of using a rotation, but actually doing so would be a bold move considering no team has used that strategy and won a Stanley Cup in the salary cap era (2006 to the present).

Linus Ullmark deserves to be the Game 1 starter based on his performance since the March 8 trade deadline. He had the second-best save percentage (.935) and GAA (1.90) of any goalie after the trade deadline. He's also healthy entering this postseason run, which wasn't the case in 2023.

Swayman struggled down the stretch, ranking 41st in save percentage (.884) and 21st in GAA (2.87) since the trade deadline. He gave up three or more goals in 11 of the last 17 games he played. However, his two-best performances in the last two months of the regular season both came against the Leafs. He earned a pair of 4-1 victories -- March 3 in Toronto and March 7 in Boston -- and stopped 60 of the 62 shots he faced. Overall, Swayman was 3-0-0 with a .959 save percentage vs. the Leafs this season, and his career .917 save percentage against Toronto is higher than Ullmark's .896 save percentage.

The decision for Montgomery comes down to Swayman's career excellence against the Leafs versus Ullmark's brilliance down the stretch. Regardless of who plays, the Bruins should have the edge at this position throughout the series.

Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll, Leafs

Samsonov projects to be the Game 1 starter for the Leafs, but it's hard to imagine his leash being very long. He largely disappointed this season with a .890 save percentage and a 3.13 GAA in 40 games. Joseph Woll played fairly well in his 25 appearances and posted a .907 save percentage and 2.88 GAA. However, Woll gave up 12 goals and lost all three of his starts versus the Bruins during the regular season. Samsonov started the first matchup back in November and allowed two goals in a shootout loss.

Goaltending is the weakest area of this Leafs roster, and it hasn't looked good of late, either. Samsonov and Woll have allowed a combined 15 goals over the Leafs' last three games.

Maybe Matt Murray will be healthy enough to play in Round 1. The veteran goalie and two-time Stanley Cup champion is on a conditioning stint with the AHL's Toronto Marlies. But he hasn't played in a game since April 5 of 2023. Throwing him into the fire, despite his playoff experience, probably isn't the best idea.

Odds

Sportsbooks have the Bruins as the favorites to win the series.

  • Bruins to win the series: -125

  • Leafs to win the series: +105

Prediction

Bruins in six games.

The Bruins have home ice advantage, more playoff experience, a better penalty kill and more reliable goaltending. They also should enter this matchup with plenty of confidence given their recent success against the Leafs. It wouldn't be shocking if the Leafs won this series, and they certainly are capable of getting hot offensively with all of their elite scoring talent, but the Bruins have the edge in too many important areas.