Although Boston won a Stanley Cup title as recently as two years ago, the Bruins still have a lot to prove this postseason.
Boston won it all in 2011, beating the Vancouver Canucks in seven games for the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1972. Last spring, however, the Bruins were one and done as they lost in seven games to the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals in the opening round.
This season's first-round opponent is one of Boston's oldest foes, and the Original Six rivals have been connected in recent years due to the infamous trade that sent sniper Phil Kessel from the Bruins to Toronto.
Prior to the 2009-10 season, the Maple Leafs acquired Kessel for a big price, sending two first-round picks and a second-rounder to the Bruins for the young winger. The deal happened after Toronto's fourth straight playoff absence and three more years out of the playoffs came and went before Kessel and the Leafs were able to end the drought this season.
By winning a Cup so soon after the trade, Boston made it fairly clear Kessel wasn't the key to the franchise's success. The fact that the draft picks the Bruins received from Toronto turned into big-time prospects like Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton is just the icing on the cake.
However, the perception that Boston won the Kessel trade is no guarantee the B's will be able to defeat the Maple Leafs in this series. After all, the Bruins are minus goaltender Tim Thomas this season, as the two-time Vezina Trophy winner and Conn Smythe recipient in 2011 sat this year out due to personal reasons. Tuukka Rask filled in nicely as the No. 1 and Boston ended the regular season with the third-best defense in the league, but Thomas' absence still could prove costly this spring.
Rask started 34 games for Boston this season and went 19-10-5 with a 2.00 goals against average and .929 save percentage. He also tied for the NHL lead with five shutouts. The 26-year-old Finn has seen action in 13 career playoff games, going 7-6 with a 2.61 GAA in those outings, which all came with Boston during the 2010 postseason.
Boston's formidable blue line is the club's greatest strength and that's mostly due to the unique skill set of team captain Zdeno Chara. At 6-foot-9, Chara is unlike any other player the NHL has ever seen. The mammoth Slovakian is obviously a physical presence on the blue line, but he also moves well for his size and plays a well-rounded game that includes the NHL's hardest slapshot.
Chara led Boston defensemen in both goals (7) and points (19) this season and also was tops on the team in ice time, logging close to 25 minutes a game. The 36-year-old has 10 goals and 29 assists in 107 career playoff games.
Dennis Seidenberg forms the top defensive unit with Chara and he notched four goals and 13 assists while leading Boston blueliners with a plus-18 rating.
Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk make up a solid second pairing for the B's, while Adam McQuaid and mid-season acquisition Wade Redden should also see some minutes. That could leave Hamilton on the outside looking in after he had ups- and-downs during a rookie season where he supplied five goals and 11 assists over 42 games.
The biggest change for Boston up front is the addition of Jaromir Jagr to the mix. The future Hall of Fame winger was acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline and he managed to record two goals and seven assists during an 11- game run with the Bruins. All told, the 41-year-old had 16 goals and 19 assists this season in 45 combined games with Boston and the Stars.
Jagr, who is expected to be ready for the start of this series after a recent bout with the flu, has 78 goals and 189 points over 180 career playoff games.
Nathan Horton should be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs as well after missing the final five games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. The winger finished fourth on Boston with 13 goals this season.
Brad Marchand was Boston's top offensive weapon this season, leading the team with 18 goals and 36 points. Seguin added 16 goals and 16 assists and tied Marchand for second on the team with a plus-23 rating.
Patrice Bergeron, one of the league's best defensive forwards, led Boston with a plus-24 rating this season and also added 10 goals and 22 assists.
Boston finished 14th in the NHL with 2.65 goals per game and the power play was ranked 26th. The Bruins' struggles on the man advantage are nothing new as the club went just 10-for-88 on the power play in 2011 and still lifted the Cup.
The Bruins did boast the NHL's fourth-best penalty killing unit in 2013 and also scored five short-handed goals.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (5th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 26-17-5
2012 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
It's been a long time coming, but the Maple Leafs finally made it back to the postseason.
Toronto last qualified for the playoffs in 2004 and the NHL went through two lockouts before the Leafs were able to end the longest postseason drought in the franchise's storied history.
Improved play between the pipes was a big reason the seven-season playoff dry spell ended in 2013, as James Reimer appeared to come into his own during his third year as an NHLer. Perhaps, it was the constant rumors the Leafs were interested in acquiring goaltender Roberto Luongo from Vancouver that spurred the 25-year-old to take a step forward.
Despite missing seven games early on due to a sprained MCL, Reimer went 19-8-5 with a 2.46 GAA and .924 save percentage. He also notched four shutouts in 33 outings and helped Toronto's team defense improve from 3.16 goals allowed per game in 2011-12 (29th in the NHL) to 2.67 this season (17th in the NHL).
Of course, Reimer will be making his first appearance in the playoffs, where he'll have to prove himself all over again.
Outside of Reimer, however, the man facing the most pressure for the Leafs in this series is Kessel, but that should be nothing new for the soft-spoken winger.
Although he's led the Maple Leafs in goals and points in each of his four seasons in Toronto, it seems like Kessel can never do enough to prove he was worth the price then-GM Brian Burke paid for him in 2009. Still, he's clearly Toronto's best offensive weapon and is coming off a season where he potted 20 goals and added 32 assists in 48 games.
Kessel only played in 15 playoff games prior to joining the Leafs, but he had 15 points on nine goals and six assists in those contests for the Bruins.
During his first few years in Toronto, Kessel was forced to shoulder too much of the offensive responsibility, but the club has added scoring depth recently and that's another reason the Leafs find themselves back in the playoffs.
Help came last summer in a trade for former Philadelphia Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk, who notched 18 goals and finished third on the team with 32 points. The second overall pick in the 2007 draft, van Riemsdyk had 11 goals in 39 playoff games during his time in Philadelphia.
Even bigger than the trade for JVR, however, was the emergence of Nazem Kadri, who also notched 18 goals and finished second on the club with 44 points. Kadri, the seventh overall pick by Toronto in the 2009 draft, only had eight goals and 19 points in 51 NHL games prior to this season.
Van Riemsdyk and Kessel play opposite wings with centerman Tyler Bozak in between. Bozak, who had 12 goals and 16 assists this season, missed the last two games of the regular season with an undisclosed injury, but he should be ready to go for the start of this series.
Kadri centers the team's second line, which features oft-injured, but talented winger Joffrey Lupul. Although Lupul played in just 16 games during the regular season this year, he posted 11 goals and 18 points in those outings and is healthy to begin the playoffs.
Nikolai Kulemin normally plays opposite Lupul on the second line and had seven goals and 16 assists in 48 games this season.
A strong season from top defenseman Dion Phaneuf also contributed to Toronto getting better in its own end. The physical D-man led the Maple Leafs' blue line in goals with nine and finished second with 28 points. Phaneuf also paced Toronto in ice time with 25 minutes and 10 seconds logged on average. Phaneuf's skating partner, Carl Gunnarsson, had one goal and 14 assists this season.
Cody Franson led all Toronto defensemen with 29 points on four goals and 25 assists. Like Franson, John-Michael Liles is more of an offensive blueliner, although he only managed two goals and nine assists over 32 games this season.
Ryan O'Byrne, who plays a stay-at-home style, was acquired from Colorado during the season to bulk up the bottom of the defensive corps. He had a plus- four rating in eight games with Toronto following the trade.
The Maple Leafs ranked 14th in the NHL this season on the power play, but were second in penalty killing.
These old rivals have met 13 times in the playoffs, but this is the first encounter since 1974, when Boston swept the Maple Leafs in the opening round. That was the third straight playoff series' win over Toronto for the Bruins, who have claimed eight of the all-time playoff encounters between the clubs.
Boston also won three of four meetings against the Maple Leafs in 2013 and gained seven of a possible eight points during the season series. Bergeron notched two goals and two assists in four games for Boston, while Kadri led the way for the Leafs with two goals and a helper.
Kessel did not record a single point in four games against Boston this year and has just three goals and six assists in 22 lifetime meetings against his former team.
Rask was 2-0 with a minuscule 0.84 GAA in three outings in the season series, while his backup Anton Khudobin was 1-1 with a 2.94 GAA.
Reimer went 1-1-1 with a 1.63 GAA in three games against the Bruins. Toronto backup Ben Scrivens allowed three goals in his lone appearance versus Boston this season on March 7.
The Bruins didn't fare well late in the regular season, as they went 2-5-2 over the last nine games to allow Montreal to finish one point ahead of them for the Northeast Division title. Luckily for Boston, the Maple Leafs also struggled at the end of the year, going 2-4-0 over their last six tilts.
Boston has the personnel to frustrate Toronto's offense and the Bruins should have just enough scoring of their own to move onto the next round. The Leafs' best bet to win this series lies with Reimer in net, but he'll likely have to steal at least two games to get Toronto past Boston.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bruins in 6