TORONTO — All the Toronto Maple Leafs want to do is look forward.
Their recent history with the Boston Bruins, however, makes it hard not to take a long gaze in the rear-view mirror.
The Leafs open the NHL playoffs at TD Garden for the second spring in a row Thursday, the same building where they fell in Game 7 of last year’s opening round.
The heartbreak from that night no doubt still lingers, especially after Toronto blew a 4-3 lead in the third period on the way to a 7-4 defeat.
Both teams have undergone changes, but the echoes of 12 month ago remain, even if the Leafs prefer otherwise.
“Last year is last year. There’s no sense spending any time on that,” Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said. “Our guys are growing, and they’re going to get older and they’re going to get better. Some of those losses in life — some of those little hardships — are the best thing for you.
“They allow you to grow and make you grow. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to lose. You don’t like the feeling.”
Leafs centre Auston Matthews bore the brunt of the criticism in the wake of the defeat after putting up just two points against the Bruins, while Boston’s top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak combined for 30.
The 21-year-old Matthews was thwarted at every turn by the grinding Bergeron and hulking Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara.
“We have another opportunity,” Babcock said. “We had one in the spring last year, and they were better than us in the end. We’d like to be better than them.”
The biggest change this time around comes in the form of John Tavares. The Leafs signed the centre in free agency to a massive seven-year, US$77-million contract for moments like this.
His presence down the middle coupled with the chemistry developed alongside Mitch Marner presents a potential “pick your poison” scenario against Boston. Do the Bruins send Bergeron and Chara out against Matthews when they have the last change at home, try them against Tavares and Marner, or split up the assignments?
And the Leafs, who have a deeper forward group, can also role out Nazem Kadri as a third centre option more often than last spring’s series — one where he was suspended for Games 2, 3 and 4 following an ugly boarding penalty on Tommy Wingels.
“Everybody knows the history between the two teams, but we don’t like to dwell on the past,” said Kadri, one of just players remaining on the roster from Toronto’s other Game 7 collapse against Boston back in 2013 — the other is Jake Gardiner. “We want to focus on the future and what we can do from this moment on.”
While the Leafs, who battled back from a 3-1 series deficit just to force Game 7 last year, might have an edge in depth up front, the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak triumvirate could sink them on their own.
In his last 15 games against Toronto, Pastrnak has 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points, Marchand has 19 points (five goals, 14 assists) in 14 outings, and Bergeron has 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in his last 12 contests between the Atlantic Division rivals.
“That line is very dangerous,” Tavares said. “One of the best in the league, one of the most productive.”
The Leafs held a slight edge over the Bruins in the standings on Jan. 19 before Boston went 15-0-4 over its next 19 games — the second-longest point streak in franchise history — to pull away and secure home-ice in the first round by a comfortable seven-point margin.
“We’re really excited … best time of year,” said Marchand, whose team was 3-1-0 against Toronto in the regular season. “Now the real fun starts.”
Game 2 goes Saturday at TD Garden, where the Leafs were outscored a combined 12-4 to open the series last April, before things shift to Scotiabank Arena for Monday’s Game 3 and Wednesday’s Game 4.
Babcock said the so-called “hostile environment” in Boston shouldn’t be an issue.
“I’ve never seen a fan play,” said the coach. “It’s going to be on the ice, it’s going to be amongst two teams. They know what we’re about and we know what they’re about. Now we’ve got to go out and execute. There’s going to be moments in the game where they have momentum.
“Don’t do anything silly. Just be patient and play.”
Like any playoff series, the goalies will be under a microscope. Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask outduelled Leafs counterpart Frederik Andersen last spring, but both come in off up-and-down seasons.
Toronto, which hasn’t won a playoffs series since 2004, added to its defence corps featuring Gardiner and Morgan Rielly before the trade deadline with the acquisition of two-time Stanley Cup champion Jake Muzzin as the young Leafs prepare for a third consecutive post-season appearance.
“They’re a good team, we’re a pretty good team,” Matthews said. “We know we can play with this team and compete at their level.”
The Leafs will soon find out if that’s indeed the case.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press