A pair of Original Six rivals will meet in the playoffs for the first time in nearly 40 years, as the Boston Bruins host the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at TD Garden.
These old foes 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.
Although Boston won a Stanley Cup title as recently as two years ago, the fourth-seeded 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.
"I think we were all looking forward to getting back in the playoffs," Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "Just because, personally, and as a team, it was disappointing the way things ended and the early exit."
This season's first-round opponent is one of Boston's oldest foes, and the 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.
However, the perception that Boston won the Kessel trade is no guarantee the B's will be able to defeat the fifth-seeded 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.
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. 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).
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.
However, 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.
Boston 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 Nazem Kadri led the way for the Leafs with two goals and a helper.
Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr, who was acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline, is expected to be ready for Game 1 after a recent bout with the flu. The future Hall of Fame winger registered two goals and seven assists during an 11-game run with the Bruins this season and he has 78 goals and 189 points over 180 career playoff games.
Fellow forward Nathan Horton should be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs 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.
Toronto's Tyler Bozak, who centers the Kessel line, missed the last two games of the regular season with an undisclosed injury, but he should be ready to go for Game 1. Bozak had 12 goals and 16 assists this season.
Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is scheduled for Saturday in Boston. The Bruins were 16-5-3 on home ice during the regular season, while Toronto was 13-8-8 on the road.