BOSTON — The Boston Bruins do not feel that they necessarily need to send a message. They do not feel that they need to prove their worth. Not against the Toronto Maple Leafs, even though they are not only one of the best teams in the NHL, and the team ahead of the Bruins in the Atlantic Division, they are their most likely opponent in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Bruins, after all, have ample evidence that they can defeat the Maple Leafs.
Boston has won two of its three games against Toronto this season, the wins coming at TD Garden. Oh, and there was the little matter of the first round of last season’s playoffs when the Bruins prevailed in a seven-game series, just as they had when they faced off in the first round in 2013.
But that doesn’t mean that their game at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN1, CITY, NESN, NHL.TV) isn’t a test.
It is, especially coming two days after the Bruins — despite playing well — failed yet again to defeat the Washington Capitals, extending their winless streak against the defending Stanley Cup champions to 14 games.
“I think our guys relish it,” coach Bruce Cassidy said, of getting the chance to face the Maple Leafs. “It’s becoming a very good rivalry. It already was, but I think it’s growing. Obviously positionally it’s important to stay up with them [in the division], so in that regard it’s probably a little more than just your average two-point game.”
It helps, too, that the Bruins are finally getting healthy.
With a good chance that defenseman Charlie McAvoy rejoins the lineup on Saturday, the Bruins would have their full expected roster — with the exception of injured forward Joakim Nordstrom — for the first time this season.
“Coming out of last night, a little disappointed it didn’t go better for us,” Cassidy said about the loss to Washington, which ended a five-game winning streak. “They made some plays when they needed to. We didn’t. It usually comes down to that when two good teams play hockey. I suspect that’ll be the case tomorrow.”
The history between the Bruins and the Maple Leafs continues to grow and, with the Tampa Bay Lightning running away with the division, it seems likely that Boston and Toronto could finish in the second and third spots in the Atlantic (Toronto is second and Boston third) as long as the Buffalo Sabres don’t play spoiler.
That would set up another playoff matchup, one that the Maple Leafs would be desperate to win, given their past failures to get by the Bruins.
Not that the Bruins would have any less desire to beat their other Canadian rivals.
It’s not something that’s top of mind for the Bruins these days, just past the halfway mark of the season, as the wind chill dips and they bundle into coats and hats and scarves. There is so much hockey to play before April. But it’s still there. It’s still something they know is possible, even likely.
“You don’t think about it in the moment, or day to day, but it’s definitely in the back of our minds,” forward Jake DeBrusk said. “That’s why it’s even bigger than just a four-point game. You want to kind of set the tone on different fronts.
“I thought the guys did a great job last time playing against Toronto. I personally wasn’t in the lineup [because of injury], but it was one of those games where I was proud to watch.”
So it matters if they win. It matters for themselves, for the Maple Leafs, for their feeling about their place in the division and their eventual positioning in the playoffs.
“It’ll be a good test for us,” forward Sean Kuraly said. “We’re going to take it as the most important game of the year so far.”
And they believe that they’re ready for that test.
“I think we’ve played them well, no matter who’s been in the lineup, to be honest with you,” Cassidy said. “I think our guys are comfortable in that regard. We’re confident if we play our game that we can do well against Toronto.”
Now, and when it really matters.