Dave Feschuk: For the Maple Leafs, home ice always nice against rival Bruins
|Toronto Star 11 Jan 2019 at 14:53|
The Boston Bruins are in town Saturday for their final regular-season meeting with the Maple Leafs on Saturday night. So you know what that means.
It means the Maple Leafs are hearing footsteps.
When the Leafs face the Boston Bruins, it’s rarely a dull affair. Toronto hosts Boston on Saturday in their final regular-season meeting. But another first-round clash of these two seems highly likely. (Maddie Meyer / GETTY IMAGES)
“They’re obviously rivals of ours. They’re chasing us, and they want to catch us,” Nazem Kadri was saying on Friday. “Because come playoff time, home ice is pretty crucial.”
Maybe home ice is crucial, in some minds. So maybe it makes sense that the Maple Leafs, four points clear of the Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division with a game in hand, are rightly fixated on making sure they maintain their second-place position at all costs. Sure, the season is only a little more than half over, so nothing’s set in stone. But thanks to the NHL’s widely derided system of division-based playoff seeding, barring calamity it’s likely very little of significance will change between now and the first week of April, when the playoff matchups will be mercifully cemented. The Tampa Bay Lightning, now a distant 12 points ahead of the Maple Leafs for first place in the Atlantic, came into Friday with an 89 per cent probability of finishing with the top playoff seed, according to Hockey-Reference.com. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, had only a 6 per cent probability of slipping out of the Atlantic’s No. 2 or No. 3 seed and into one of the East’s two wild-card slots.
Which means, in short, that with nearly three months remaining in the regular season, there isn’t a lot of playoff-race drama in the offing. Toronto’s going to almost certainly finish in one of two places — second or third in the Atlantic. Boston’s the favourite to join them as the other half of that two-three duo, setting up a rematch of last spring’s seven-game first-round epic.
So you’ll understand why in some eyes, the difference between being seeded No. 2 and No. 3 is seismic. If Toronto ends up No. 3, they’d be signing up to open the series — and, should it go the distance, close the series — amid the not-so-friendly ghosts of Boston’s TD Garden. And you know the recent history. That’s where “4-1” happened, the Collapse on Causeway Street, the 2013 catastrophe that needs no further elaboration. That’s where “minus-5” happened — Jake’s mistakes and the third-period Toronto lead that somehow devolved into a team’s second consecutive first-round exit as a lower seed.
So yeah, making sure it’s Toronto for Games 1 and 2 (and, if necessary, Games 5 and 7) sounds preferable, and not only to the folks at MLSE who count the money from the extra home playoff gate.
“Nobody wants to go into another team’s building in a Game 7 and try and have to win that game,” Kadri said. “Obviously that’s something that’s tough to do.”
Still, as much as Kadri was offering his usual brand of unvarnished common sense, there were others in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room offering a different outlook. Morgan Rielly, on the day he found out he’d lost the fan vote to be the “last man in” at this month’s all-star game, made a case that this year’s Leafs team is a different beast than last year’s.
“This group has confidence right now playing against any team in the league,” Rielly said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
And as for Boston being Toronto’s alleged nemesis? Rielly made a case that’s overplayed. While it’s true the Bruins have taken two of three regular-season meetings so far this season, let’s not forget that, heading into last year’s playoffs, Toronto had won seven of the previous eight regular-season matches between the clubs. These things wax and wane.
“I don’t really think you think about the past. There was a period of time when we didn’t have great luck in Buffalo and Montreal,” Rielly said. “It’s a good league. It’s a good division. Tampa being as good as they are, I’m sure our record against them could use some work.”
Added head coach Mike Babcock: “Would you like to start at home? For sure. We’ve been pretty good on the road.”
They’ve been beyond pretty good, actually. With a league-high 15 wins in 21 road games so far, the Maple Leafs are on pace for 29 victories away from home this season. The franchise record is 23. Last season they won 20.
That kind of success, in this era of charter travel and cookie-cutter rinks, only underlines the ongoing diminishment of the significance of the home advantage in the NHL. Think about it: Some teams, including the Maple Leafs, are enamoured enough with the bunker-mentality atmosphere of a post-season road trip that they attempt to recreate it around home games, staying in hotels even when the next game is in their own rink. Last year in the post-season, home teams won just 47 per cent of the games during the opening three rounds. Then the Washington Capitals went into the Stanley Cup final against the Vegas Golden Knights as the Game 1 road team. Two away wins later, the Las Vegas strip looked awfully hospitable to Alex Ovechkin et al as they hoisted their first Stanley Cup.
If that trend keeps up, they’ll be calling it a home disadvantage. Except, maybe, if you happen to be the Maple Leafs facing the prospect of a Game 7 in a Garden filled with ghosts.
“Right now I don’t think it’s a topic of conversation,” Rielly said. “Down the stretch when it gets closer I think we’ll be thinking about it a bit more. We would like to have (home advantage), for sure. Everyone wants that.”