In the Boston Bruins, Jake Gardiner sees one of the best teams in the NHL but also one he and the Toronto Maple Leafs should be excited to face with their playoff hopes on the line again.
"We think we match up well against Boston," Gardiner said. "I'm just going back from last year in the playoffs. Obviously it didn't end well, but I think we all elevate our game against them. We know they're one of the top teams in the league and it seems like we're always prepared to play them."
The Leafs better be prepared this time around as they likely must run the table in their final five games to give themselves a realistic chance of making the playoffs.
Toronto's debilitating eight-game losing streak finally came to an end Tuesday with a home win over the Calgary Flames. Up next are the Bruins, who came back to beat Toronto in the first round last spring after an epic Leafs' collapse in Game 7.
Even after losing 3-2 at the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night, Boston is 15-1-1 in its past 17 games. Previously, the only loss was to the Montreal Canadiens in a shootout, and in outscoring opponents 59-26, the Bruins have made a lot of teams feel desperate.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle hopes his team can find some positives in their desperation this late in the season.
"When you play teams of that calibre, you have to be on top of your game, you have to be playing at your highest level," he said. "You've got to be prepared to compete in the small areas of the ice because they're a big hockey club and they've got a lot of depth in their lineup and they play the same way. You've got to be prepared to earn your space on the ice."
Even if backup goaltender Chad Johnson starts in place of Vezina Trophy candidate Tuukka Rask, the Bruins present challenges up and down the ice. It's no surprise Boston is atop the league as former Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla has 13 goals and five assists in 18 games since the Olympic break and captain Zdeno Chara has earned some Norris Trophy talk of late.
With the Bruins having already clinched the Atlantic Division and being virtually assured of the top spot in the Eastern Conference, it's possible the 37-year-old Chara and others get some rest — possibly as soon as Thursday in Toronto. Iginla did not play in Detroit with what the team called a lower-body injury.
But even if Chara is given a night off, Boston has a deep blue-line with defencemen like Johnny Boychuk, Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Kevan Miller. And then there's the fact that the Bruins, led by Patrice Bergeron, are one of the top faceoff teams around.
"Those guys, they have great timing and are strong," Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said. "Their wingers jump in and help out a lot and win a lot of battles. They kind of work as a full group on the faceoff."
Gardiner, who had a goal and four assists in six playoff games against the Bruins last year, recalled he and his teammates moving the puck quickly in their Jan. 14 victory over the Bruins at TD Garden as another reason the possession game is such a big deal.
"We've been trying to focus on that and limit our turnovers," the defenceman said. "They've got some weapons up front so we can't give them the puck."
That's easier said than done, and it can present a problem against the deep Bruins.
One way to combat Boston's depth is with the same kind of secondary offence the Leafs got in their win over the Flames. Fourth-liner Jay McClement and third-liners David Clarkson and Dave Bolland scored goals, something that's increasingly vital as Phil Kessel deals with a bruised right foot.
"We're going to need everybody against Boston if we want to win that game," Bozak said.
Notes: Only six Leafs players took part in an optional practice Wednesday: defenceman Paul Ranger and Morgan Rielly, forwards Troy Bodie, Jerry D'Amigo and Colton Orr and goaltender James Reimer. Carlyle said the decision to make it optional was more about saving energy than it was a reward for ending the skid. ... Ranger was announced as the Leafs' nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey." ... The Leafs signed centre Carter Verhaeghe to a three-year, entry-level contract. Verhaeghe, a third-round pick in last year's draft, will report to the AHL's Marlies for the rest of the season.