Leafs will be playing back-to-back Stanley Cup champions Lightning in opening round

By: Neil Becker

In what should be a long grueling series, the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff journey will begin with a first round date against the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champs the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Toronto, who on Friday night concluded the regular season with a 5-2 win at Scotiabank Arena against the Boston Bruins, finished second in the Atlantic Division with 115 points which gives them home ice advantage. 

Meanwhile the Lightning completed the season with a 6-4 comeback win against the New York Islanders which combined with the Bruins loss, gave the Lightning third spot in the Atlantic with 110 points and with it a first round playoff matchup against the upstart Leafs.

Playing on Friday what seemed more like a pre-season exhibition game, the Leafs sat out an assortment of stars such as Auston Matthews, captain John Tavares and Mitch Marner as they smartly wanted them to rest up and get ready for Monday's game 1.

Though the Bruins were still playing for the possibility of overtaking Tampa for third in the Atlantic, they were playing without star forwards Patrice Bergeron, Eric Haula, leading scorer Brad Marchand, sniper David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall and defenceman Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk along with a third defenceman in Hampus Lindholm. 

Leading the offensive charge against Boston was Leafs forward William Nylander who scored two highlight reel unassisted goals to finish off what has been a career season which saw the 24 year-old reach career highs with 34 goals and 80 points.

Obviously with nothing on the line for Toronto, the main objective on Friday night was to escape that last game against Boston without suffering any lingering injuries.

Leafs fans from coast-to-coast along with management and the coaching staff had to be sweating a few times including when forward Ilya Mikheyev absorbed a couple of heavy hits and when number one defenceman Morgan Rielly got into a semi-fight while sticking up for a teammate.

Boston came out strong as they grabbed the momentum 70 seconds into regulation as forward Trent Frederic from in close scored his eighth goal to give them that 1-0 lead.

That lead proved to be short-lived as Mikheyev, who is one of the most improved Leafs players scored at 3:51 of the first on a power-play. Stationed by the Bruins net, he  successfully scored his 21st goal when he deflected a Mark Giordano shot from the blueline.

The Leafs weren't done yet as Nylander showed his elite skill when at the Leafs blue line he stripped Bruins Marc McLaughlin of the puck before racing in on a breakaway and at the 13:16 mark scoring his 33rd goal.

As time ticked down in the first, a feel-good moment would arise as Leafs forward Nicholas Abruzzese who was only playing his ninth NHL game scored his first goal when with only eight seconds left he got his stick on a Rielly drive from the point which earned him a standing ovation from the Scotiabank Arena faithful. 

Following a scoreless second, the Leafs took their 3-1 lead into the third period which had them 20 minutes away from solidifying their first round best of seven playoff matchup against the Lightning.

In the third, Nylander got the fans buzzing even more as he pulled off another highlight reel move from the slot and scored his 34th goal as the Leafs took a commanding three goal lead.

Boston, who earlier in the game had a goal from Nick Foligno called off because of off-side, made it a two-goal game when on the power play forward Jake DeBrusk scored his 25th which with a little over seven minutes remaining made for a good finish.

The Bruins pulled their goalie but the strategy backfired as Leafs forward Pierre Engvall with only 10 seconds remaining in regulation rounded out the scoring as he scored his 15th into an open net.

Now it gets serious for a Toronto Maple Leafs team who have serious Stanley Cup aspirations.   

The first step towards the ultimate quest of a Stanley Cup begins at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night with a Game 1 face-off between the Leafs and Lightning scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

I think most hockey fans expect this to be a full seven game series. 



             SCORING SUMMARY 

                1ST Period                                                          BOS  -   TOR

                1:10  Trent Frederic (8)                                           1   -    0    

                Craig Smith (19), Charlie Coyle (28)


                3:51 P.P.  Ilya Mikheyev (21)                                    1  -     1

                Timothy Liljeren (18), Mark Giordano (27)


                13:16  William Nylander (33)                                     1  -     2



                19:52  Nicholas Abruzzese (1)                                  1   -     3

                  Morgan Rielly (58)


                 2ND Period                                                          BOS  -  TOR

                (No Goals)


                3RD Period                                                           BOS -  TOR

               8:00 William Nylander (34)                                          1   -    4

               Pierre Engvall (20), Justin Holl (20)


              12:49 PPG- Jake DeBrusk (25)                                     2   -     4

              Craig Smith (20), Mike Reilly (13)


             19:50 ENG- Pierre Engvall (15)                                      2  -      5