All eyes in the TD Garden stands Wednesday night will be fixed on Phil Kessel, the ex-Bruin who found riches in Toronto only to fall into bankruptcy every time he has faced his former team.
Fans of the Black-and-Gold will ride the speedy right winger from the start, taunting him with the “Thank You, Kessel!’’ refrain (in reference to Tyler Seguin, who was taken with the draft pick acquired in the Kessel trade), all the while praying that he doesn’t once and for all untangle his bountiful scoring skills and scuttle Boston’s chances of a second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
“He’s a good player,’’ Boston captain Zdeno Chara said Tuesday, following the club’s final tuneup prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs vs. the Maple Leafs. “We just try to focus on what we do on the ice.’’
Such is the standard, cautious postseason mantra, especially for two clubs that finished up the season in less-than-ready-for-prime-time form. The Bruins wilted over their last 10 games, going 3-7-0, and the Leafs were only a slightly more respectable 5-4-1. The two squads enter the best-of-seven series as classic No. 4-5 seeds, neither good nor bad, each in need of focus, a foothold, something to provide playoff momentum.
“We are challenging ourselves to get our game back,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien.
All of which tells us precisely where the Bruins are at the moment. They know their identity, a club centered in defense and heavy, physical play, yet they strayed greatly from that model over the second half of the 48-game season. They have the talent and toughness to blow the Leafs out of this series, but these last 3-4 weeks have been their shakiest and least confident since winning the Cup in 2011.
“I think we have a lot to prove, especially after last year,’’ said Chara, noting the first-round loss to Washington in last year’s playoffs. “Obviously, we’ve hit some bumps along the way.’’
An abysmal power play has been one of the bumps. Penalty killing, long a Boston strong suit, was particularly weak over the last 3-4 weeks. Overall offense shriveled, the Bruins only twice scoring more than three goals in their last 16 games dating to March 30.
The schedule was demanding. They were obviously tired, and the fatigue was clearly evident in their skating and on the scoreboard.
If they are still that lethargic, unmotivated team when the puck drops in Game 1, they could be in trouble.
“They’ve really improved a lot on their forecheck,’’ said veteran Boston pivot Patrice Bergeron, asked what problems the Leafs could present. “They come at you hard. They are really in your face.
“Some of their young guys have developed, and they’ve got a lot of depth up front, and some of their defensemen can shoot it. You’ve got to play your game, know their tendencies and be ready for anything.’’
The Leafs, a woeful 1-8-1 against the Bruins the past two seasons, are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. James Reimer finally claimed the No. 1 goaltending job left open for the better part of a decade. The offense, which was ostensibly only Kessel when he arrived there in October 2009, has filled out nicely with the likes of James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak as his first-line running mates.
A second trio, usually with Nazem Kadri between Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin, presents a layer of added offense that could force Boston’s top defensive pairing of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg to add even more minutes to its heavy workload.
The Bruins found out four years ago, when confronted by the Hurricanes in Round 2, how a collection of small/skilled/speedy forwards can disrupt Julien’s defensive template. Bet on Leafs coach Randy Carlyle picking his spots to pop Kessel’s line back onto the ice when the Chara-Seidenberg pairing takes a break, and perhaps roll three lines to Julien’s four, hoping to disrupt whatever rhythm the Bruins can conjure.
The Bruins workout at the Garden featured five lines, with Carl Soderberg, Jay Pandolfo, and Rich Peverley skating on what looked like a reserve trio. But that depends on whether Nathan Horton, sidelined since an April 20 fight with Jarome Iginla, gets the green light.
Jaromir Jagr, who missed the last two games of the season because of flulike symptoms, is expected to play, although he was obviously still under the weather at his first workout in days. The skilled Czech winger was telling one and all that he wished the series opener had been set for Thursday, not Wednesday, the talk of a man with one hand gripping a stick, the other clutching Dayquil.
Horton, if he’s back, should open with his regular partners, David Krejci in the middle and Milan Lucic on left wing. If they play near peak form — something seen only briefly at the start of the season — they could offset the speedy, darting approach that Toronto forwards could take.
If Horton and Lucic are on their A games, the Leafs simply can’t match their size and strength on the wings. Trouble is, both of them too often submitted failing grades this season. If they fall into that funk again, a critical difference in this series will be a critical deficiency. The margins are thin.
“They’re good shooters,’’ said Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, reflecting on what he expects to see from the Toronto forwards. “And they have the hockey sense to make good plays, too.’’
When last these two teams met in the playoffs, the spring of 1974, Bobby Orr still wore Black-and-Gold and Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were’’ led the Top 40. It was still a 16-team NHL and the Bruins were but two springs removed from their most recent Cup (sound familiar?)
Leaf fans, meanwhile, had grown restless in ’74, seven years after seeing Dave Keon pace them to their last Cup. In southern Ontario, that discontent now inches toward a half-century, a wait that has spanned two millennia.
Now it’s Game 1, Bruins-Leafs. Two teams in need of getting better at the best but most difficult time of year. All we know for sure today is that one side will be left to say, “Thank you, Kessel.’’