For much of their long history, the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs were on amicable terms with each other. Both teams are part of the Original Six, but the rivalry fires never seemed to be ignited for very long. Instead, the Boston formed a blood feud with the Montreal Canadiens, while the Leafs turned their sights to the Detroit Red Wings. Recent events over the past few seasons have changed all that. The Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs are quickly growing a new rivalry and tonight’s game between the two teams will simply add another chapter.
The two teams do have a history with each before 2009, but nothing caused the rivalry to withstand the test of time. The regular season games were heated, but none reached the level of a Toronto-Ottawa game or a Boston-Montreal one. The first spark of a renewed rivalry happened on September 18, 2009, when the Bruins traded winger Phil Kessel to the Maple Leafs in exchange for two first round draft picks and a second round pick. Kessel was touted as a savior to the Maple Leafs troubles by then-general manager Brian Burke, but was seen as a non-essential piece to the Boston Bruins. When Kessel failed to make the immediate impact that Burke was hoping for during Kessel’s first season in Toronto, the taunts and jeers from Bruin fans helped stoke the fire of the budding rivalry. In Kessel’s first game against his former team, he played what he called “the worst game I have played in a while”, registering only two shots and ended up on the ice for the first three Boston goals in the Bruins’ 7-2 victory.
The rivalry became even more heated when the two first round picks the Leafs traded wound up high on the draft board, where Boston grabbed young center Tyler Seguin with the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and defenseman Dougie Hamilton with the 9th overall pick in 2011. Seguin replaced the point production lost from the Kessel trade, making it even more obvious that Kessel was a non-essential piece in their plans. The Bruins point an exclamation point on that claim when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011, with Seguin in tow. Recent years have turned the tide of public opinion about the trade. Phil Kessel has become a leader in the Maple Leaf lockerroom in addition to becoming much more productive on the ice. Meanwhile, Boston eventually traded Seguin to the Dallas Stars, after some questions about his character and certain off-ice incidents arose. The fate of the two players has led to some heated back-and-forth between the two fanbases, fanning the flames of this reignited rivalry.
The growing rivalry took a big step forward last season during the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The two teams met in the playoffs for the first time since 1973, and while the Bruins were the heavy favorite, the Maple Leafs overcame a 3-1 deficit in the series to force a Game 7. Game 7 saw the Maple Leafs take a 4-1 lead going into the third period, but a goal midway through the period and two quick ones at the end saw the Bruins erase the three goal lead and force overtime. The Leafs were reeling after blowing such an opportunity, and could do nothing to prevent Boston from scoring the eventual gamewinner in overtime. Boston used the momentum from the comeback to make their way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in a similar fashion as the Leafs fell to them.
Tonight, a new chapter in the growing rivalry will be written. The Toronto Maple Leafs need a win in the game to stay in the hunt for one of the conferences wildcard spots. They currently sit only one point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for a final wildcard spot, but have played two more games. The Boston Bruins are in the opposite boat, having comfortably clinched their division and well on their way to clinch the conference title as well. The game has little effect on their place in the standings. But Boston would love nothing more than to be the team that puts a finishing blow on Toronto’s playoff hopes and Toronto coach Randy Carlyle knows that.
“There’s a level of desperation that goes into it from our standpoint when you play teams of that caliber, you have to be on the top of your game,” said Carlyle. “You have to be playing at your highest level.”
Both teams are sure to be playing at their highest level tonight when the two Atlantic division rivals face off for the final time this season. The Maple Leafs are playing for their playoff lives, while the Bruins are simply looking to play spoilers.
This article is one in a daily series providing coverage, analysis and prediction to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner