Kalman: In Game 7 Maple Leafs have more pressure, Bruins have more to lose

Matt Kalman
April 22, 2019 - 6:50 pm

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004.

They’ve been to the Stanley Cup playoffs three straight seasons, and in the two years prior to this one they lost in the first round. Another first-round exit – against the Bruins again, no less – would be deemed a major failure of the Maple Leafs building process. They need to take a step forward, but just like last season when they couldn’t hold a third-period lead in Game 7, they couldn’t close out the series at home in Game 6.

It’s a lot for a young team to deal with. Game 7, though, could be their shining moment or they could let down the great majority of an entire nation (being that Toronto is the last remaining Canadian team in the postseason).

The pressure on the Bruins may not quite match what the Maple Leafs are facing. The Bruins fought all year for home-ice advantage and earned it, as well as third place in the overall NHL standings. They went two rounds deep last season and they came into this season with Stanley Cup aspirations.

But their core, led by 42-year-old Zdeno Chara, is all past 30 years old and has already won one Cup. The Bruins aren’t staring down the 52-year championship drought the Maple Leafs are living down.

The Bruins, though, are under the stress of a closing window to win one more time while their core is intact. Although the likes of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask don’t seem ready to decline, take one look at David Backes and tell me things can’t change in a hurry.

General manager Don Sweeney successfully turned the Bruins’ fortunes around with the switch in coach to Bruce Cassidy and the right amount of youthful supporting players around the core. After two years out of the playoffs, the Bruins had a first-round exit against Ottawa in 2017, then a second-round exit against Tampa Bay in 2018. A first-round defeat would be bad enough, but made worse because of the Lightning’s shocking loss to Columbus.

The field has opened up and the Bruins may not have this great an opportunity with this core to make another deep run. Its opportunities like this that keep Chara coming back for less and less money each year, that convinced Bergeron and Marchand and David Pastrnak to take team-friendly salaries so Sweeney has enough cap space to supplement his stars. Some of Boston’s younger players – Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo – might be ready to carry the mantle soon. But there’ll never bee another Chara, never be another Bergeron. What those two have brought in terms of production and leadership is only matched by their consistency. They’re once-in-a-lifetime performers that will take multiple players combined to replace. The drop-off when those guys are gone or diminished will be devastating, and will happen in the next few years.

You can’t tell me without having a spoked B tattooed on your cheek that you wouldn’t take a core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly over whichever foursome you want to count as the Bruins core for the next four to five seasons. Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, McAvoy, Krejci? Marchand, Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, McAvoy, Carlo? Come on, you know it’s the Maple Leafs.

Both teams are going to have salary-cap crunches coming up, sure. That could leave veterans in the second layer of their cores vulnerable to trades or just being let go as unrestricted free agents. That’s the cost of doing business, and it puts the burden on drafting and development. For what it’s worth (and I know every publication evaluates organization’s differently), The Hockey News’ Future Watch issue lists the Maple Leafs’ prospect pool at No. 2, the Bruins at No. 22. Without rehashing a sore subject in Bruins land, the 2015 first round of the draft is going to continue to haunt them for at least a couple more years. And it appears the Maple Leafs will be better suited when it comes to replacing higher-priced role players with younger and cheaper ones.

So without a doubt Toronto will feel like its banging its head against the wall if it loses Game 7. They’re facing the most pressure. But the Maple Leafs will wake up Wednesday knowing they’re built around a handful of the best rising stars in the NHL, and should be for at least the next half a decade.

If the Bruins lose Game 7, they’ll not only be taking a step back but also ripping off another year from the calendar. Uncertainty awaits in the years ahead. And regrets for what might’ve been in 2019 will stick with them as they deal with the passing of the torch from the older to the younger leadership core without any guarantee they’ll be able to sustain the recent run of success.

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