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April 30, 2013 7:20 pm

rimerThere is no denying that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ problem area is their blueline. If the Boston Bruins are going to exploit the Leafs as badly as many think, then it will come from Boston’s ability to create turnovers in the Leafs zone. Heading into the 2013 season it was obvious that the blueline was an area of trouble for Randy Carlyle. That thin group became even thinner with the removal of Jake Gardiner and with a hobbled Carl Gunnarsson. However, with the emergence of Cody Franson and Mark Fraser, the blue and white back end has been able to bend, but not break (thank you James Reimer), all year. This is the major point of concern for the Leafs heading into a series against a very talented forward group. Here are the lines that the Bruins will most likely throw at the Leaf tomorrow night:

That is a formidable group capable of holding its own against any other team in the NHL. It is also a group that certainly should strike fear in Randy Carlyle and the Leafs braintrust. Carlyle’s team finished the season struggling dramatically in their own end. Breakouts have become a major concern as Carlyle has preferred brawn to mobility. Since the Leafs defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 6-3 on March 28th they have been outshot 434 to 298 combined in their final 13 games of the year (statistic courtesy via @SteveBurch). An ability to right the ship and properly transition from defense to offense is critical. Through that final stretch the Leafs were also disjointed offensively. The forwards were guilty of not making themselves available for an outlet pass, while the defense proceeded to handle the puck like a grenade. The Leafs are at their best when using their team speed to attack in waves. Hopefully that speed becomes a factor once the puck is dropped in Boston.

Having looked at the forward combinations yesterday, here are the expected defense pairings for the Leafs and what they need to do to be effective:

Carl Gunnarsson – Dion Phaneuf

The number 3 on the back of Phaneuf’s blue and white sweater might as well be a target because the Bruin forwards are going to be attacking him all series long. Perhaps the Leafs’ most important player (other than Reimer), Phaneuf impacts the game in every single way. Averaging 25:10 a night for Carlyle, and entrusted with handling the oppositions top forwards, the Leafs captain is going to see (and feel) a lot of Milan Lucic, Jaromir Jagr and Brad Marchand throughout the series. Phaneuf will not only need to handle the Bruins top forwards but also pitch in offensively. Having finished 10th overall among defenseman this season (9 goals and 28 points), he is a big part of the blue and white offense. Gunnarsson is an under appreciated member of this Leafs team. Adept at blocking shots and making a quick outlet pass he is the perfect foil to the Leafs captain. It will be interesting to see if Gunnarsson will be able to withstand the physical punishment considering he has been playing hurt all season. His presence is key.

Cody Franson – Mark Fraser

Nobody would have predicted this to be the second pairing of a Leafs playoff team. Both players have enjoyed a renaissance to their careers under Carlyle and their styles compliment each others perfectly. Fraser is limited when handling the puck and can be exposed on the outside by quick skaters (Tyler Seguin can really exploit this), but he will protect the crease with the best of them and make his presence felt every shift. Look for the Bruins to try and exploit both Fraser’s and Franson’s lack of foot speed. Franson has developed a mean streak of late and has begun using his large frame to lean on opponents. He has always had above average offensive abilities for a blueliner and has put all the pieces together this year. With 16 career playoff games under his belt Franson should be prepared for the aggressive play that will come his way. Make no mistake, the Fraser – Franson pairing can either boom or bust for the Leafs. Hopefully it’s the former and not the latter.

Mike Kostka – John-Michael Liles

The 28 year old Kostka has been able to stick around all season with the Leafs, but expectations aren’t that high for him. Can he provide the Leafs with any stability (in limited minutes) as a third pairing guy? I just don’t know. I am skeptical to see Kostka participate in the post season and would prefer to have Gardiner playing here instead of him. For what it’s worth, Kostka was a major contributor to the Norforlk Admirals run in the AHL last season as they won the Calder Cup. Kostka has difficulty making quick decisions on the ice and is not big enough to handle the Bruins forecheck. I don’t think he will last that long in this series. Liles is the best puck handling defenseman that Carlyle is planning on dressing. While limited in his own zone, Liles is fully capable of joining the rush creating odd man situations. A bit of a gambler, the Leafs will need his skills at some point.

Wildcard

Jake Gardiner – There is no reason in my mind for Gardiner to not be in the lineup for the Leafs. His good far outweighs his bad and he has the ability to control the play when on the ice. The bigger Bruins struggle when the pace of the game is elevated and that is when Gardiner is at his best. Considering Kostka’s limits and Carlyle’s quick hook (not to mention the fact that all teams suffer injuries to their blueline in the post season) I expect Gardiner to see action against Boston. When he finally does get in, look for big things. Gardiner is a special talent.

While the Leafs defense is certainly limited, the forwards are going to need to help out as much as possible to get the job done defensively. Just like the Leafs offense needs the blueline to pitch in the defense requires just as much (if not more) support. As cliche as this sounds, the Leafs are going to need a total team effort to overcome the Bruins. There have been many occasions this season where Carlyle’s team has demonstrated an ability to contribute at both ends of the rink and provide a significant amount of hostility. That unified toughness (not the face punching) is what the Leafs are going to need to get over the hump.

Having looked at both the forwards and the defenseman during the past couple of days, the most important factor will be Reimer. Can he continue his extraordinary play? Reimer has emerged (once again) as a #1 goalie in the NHL. The next step for Reimer is to demonstrate that he can maintain that position in the post season. I have become a true believer in Reimer, his imposing frame in the net in addition to his outright willingness to battle for everything in the crease makes me confident that the Leafs will pull through.

Prediction

Toronto will win this series in 7 games. I see the Leafs’ offense carrying the load against the Bruins and making up for their defensive deficiencies. I still think the Bruins will be able to exploit the Leafs poor back end, I just think the Leafs are going to be able to outscore their problems. Reimer will continue to make the team in front of him look good. Just my gut, but I think Carlyle’s crew has a lot more left to prove.

Leaformation 

Was interviewed briefly yesterday by Sarah Petz of The National Post on what it’s like to see the Leafs back in the playoffs. I was grateful for the conversation and Sarah ended up making me look a lot better than I think I sounded. Click here to read the article.

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