Bruins, Maple Leafs excited for rematch of top teams in Atlantic Division

Bruins, Maple Leafs excited for rematch of top teams in Atlantic Division

BOSTON — Halfway through the NHL season, the Boston Bruins have lost five straight games. One of those came against the Seattle Kraken at TD Garden on Thursday, their first regulation loss at home this season.

Another came on Nov. 5, 2-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the only game between the top two teams in the Atlantic Division.

The Maple Leafs will have another shot at the top team in the Atlantic, and the NHL, at TD Garden on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SNO, SNW, NESN, SN NOW).

And yet, as Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Thursday, “It’s not much of a race at this point.”

The Bruins (32-5-4) are nine points ahead of the Maple Leafs (26-10-7) in the Atlantic, and as Keefe pointed out, Boston has been on a historic streak.

“They’re playing at a pace that’s the highest winning percentage in NHL history,” Keefe said. “But we’d like to make it so they try to maintain that pace or we’re going to be right there. So that’s really it.”

That just means Toronto needs to make the most of its chances.

“They’ve been the class of the League, for sure,” defenseman Mark Giordano said. “We played them earlier in the year. It was a good game. They’re a fast team, kind of a back-and-forth game, but [Saturday] it will be an exciting game to play. I think we want to see where they are and where we are now and it will be a good test.

“If we’re going to give ourselves a chance of catching them, we’ve got to chip away at them over the next few weeks.”

And it’s possible the Maple Leafs are catching the Bruins at a good time. There was Boston’s hustle ahead of the 2023 Discover NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2, a 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Fenway Park, followed by a weeklong trip to the West Coast, where the Bruins defeated the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks by a combined score of 16-5.

They will be two days removed from a 3-0 loss to the Kraken, which led coach Jim Montgomery to cite “mental fatigue” as the culprit.

Then again, the Bruins haven’t lost back-to-back games all season.

“It’s a bigger game than the average regular season game,” Montgomery said. “We have to adjust our game and tomorrow is a good opportunity against one of the teams … I would say Toronto, Carolina and us have been probably the three teams that have been consistently the best so far this year. So which is a good test for us”.

Complicating things for the Maple Leafs is the potential absence of forward Auston Matthews, who has 47 points (20 goals, 27 assists) in 41 games this season. He has missed two games with an undisclosed injury, and then Matthews woke up sick Thursday, Keefe said.

Video: Matthews’ 2 goals lead Maple Leafs to 2-1 win

Matthews scored both goals when the teams played in November, but that game was more about what the Maple Leafs did defensively, limiting the Bruins to 21 shots on goal for the season.

Montgomery believed the Kraken did some of the same things defensively that the Maple Leafs did, which the Bruins hope will better prepare them for Saturday.

“Very similar to what Seattle did,” Montgomery said. “They were five together. They were all over us. They defended the middle of the ice very well in their end. That game, along with last night, are learning opportunities for us. How do we create more offense when we “They are playing teams that play strong controls”.

But mostly, the Bruins and Maple Leafs are looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity. It is a scenario No. 1 against No. 2, with Toronto tied with the Carolina Hurricanes (26-9-7) for second in the NHL in points.

“This is going to be a lot of fun,” Maple Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin said. “These are the games you love to play. It’s going to be tough. They’re gone.

The Bruins will be too. They entered practice Friday with what Montgomery called “an empty feeling in the stomach, and we haven’t had that.”

He said that’s something that can anger a team, can insult them enough to get them revved up as another big opponent comes into a building where they’ve been dominant all season.

Which is all for a great Saturday night.

“We’ve got that date circled on our calendar that’s going to be a big date,” Maple Leafs forward Zach Aston-Reese said. “It gets us going into this last season we have left. We get the win there, I think it’s going to be huge for our confidence.” columnist Nicholas J. Cotsonika contributed to this report

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