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Maple Leafs turn their attention to Bruins

TAMPA, Fla. – Sheldon Keefe usually spends time during intermissions breaking down film of that evening’s opponent.

Even the smallest edge can make the difference in a league separated by razor-thin margins.

With the NHL playoffs resting just over the horizon, however, the Maple Leafs head coach was focused elsewhere between periods during Toronto’s largely meaningless regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I was watching video of another team,” Keefe said following Wednesday’s 6-4 loss. “We’re working on all we can to get ourselves prepared.

“That’s really where our mind is at.”

Toronto opens the post-season Saturday night at TD Garden against the Boston Bruins — a club that swept its Atlantic Division rival across four meetings in 2023-24 and left deep scars on the Leafs’ core in seven-game losses in both 2018 and 2019.

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“Great team,” Keefe said. “We’ll do all that we can.”

Boston outscored Toronto 14-7 this season in triumphs that saw its goaltenders put up a .949 save percentage and a power play that clicked at 30 per cent.

The Bruins also blew a lead atop the division to the Florida Panthers late in the schedule with losses in three of their last four games to set up the meeting with the Leafs.

Toronto, meanwhile, had little to play for over its final few weeks of the schedule — other than Auston Matthews’ pursuit of 70 goals — before finishing with four straight defeats.

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“Definitely not how we want to be playing going into the post-season,” Matthews, who finished with 69 goals in 81 games, said of Wednesday’s first period. “I don’t think we can just think we’re going to turn it on.”

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Toronto, which finished seven points back of its fellow Original Six franchise for second in the Atlantic, has five holdovers from the group that blew a 3-2 series lead against the Bruins five years ago in Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly.

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Boston has six players remaining from that squad in Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. Trent Frederic was on that team, but didn’t suit up in those playoffs.

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“Completely new game and a new season,” Matthews said. “Do our due diligence and make sure that we’re recovering and ready.”

The Bruins, who haven’t lost to Toronto in the playoffs since 1959, set league records for points and wins last spring before getting stunned by Florida in the first round.

Boston’s backbone remains the two-headed goaltending monster of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman as it weathered the retirements of captain Patrice Bergeron and fellow centre David Krejci this season.

Getting to the front of the net will be crucial for the Leafs, who advanced in the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades last spring when they downed Tampa in six. Toronto added the likes of Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Ryan Reaves up front in a series of off-season moves meant to pay dividends at this time of year.

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“So good defensively,” Toronto defenceman T.J. Brodie said of a Boston group allowing 2.70 goals per game. “They clog everything up.”

The Leafs appeared on course for a playoff rematch with Florida, which downed Toronto in five games in last spring’s second round, earlier this week before Boston’s late stumble.

The Leafs will instead get a different familiar foe.

“Either way we were going to be facing a very good team,” Keefe said. “We’ll do all that we can to prepare for it.”

That, of course, includes watching lots of tape.


Nylander seemed like a lock to easily crack 100 points when he signed the richest contract in franchise history just over four months ago.

The forward instead slowed down the stretch — at least on the stats page — with four assists over his final 11 games to finish with 98 points.

Keefe, however, isn’t concerned about a player having just completed his second straight 40-goal season. The 27-year-old also was outstanding in last spring’s playoffs, finishing with four goals and six assists across 11 contests.

“His numbers have been down the last little bit, but his game hadn’t been,” Keefe said. “He was dominating play. The puck wasn’t going in for him. The last week, Willy’s sort of shown that he’s done with regular-season hockey.

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“He’s ready to move along.”


The oldest player in the NHL this season at age 40, Toronto defenceman Mark Giordano played the 1,148th game of his career Wednesday.

With the Leafs’ deep on the back end and his contract up July 1, it’s unclear when — or if — he’ll play again. Whatever comes next, Giordano’s coach still sees “hunger” in his blue-line greybeard.

“Pushing every day,” Keefe said. “He’s given us everything that he has, whether it’s practice, games.

“Continuing to be a good teammate and a valued member of our group.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2024.


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&© 2024 The Canadian Press

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