Oh, hardly any storylines here. The Toronto Maple Leafs return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and find themselves in a clash with the Boston Bruins, whose trade of Phil Kessel to Toronto in September 2009 ultimately delivered Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton to the Bruins and has sparked long hours of bar talk regarding the value of the trade. Then there are the Bruins, who have gone more than a little sideways in recent weeks. Instead of being seen as a legitimate threat to the Pittsburgh Penguins atop the Eastern Conference, they now appear like a team that could be one-and-done for the second straight year after winning a Stanley Cup in 2011. Weird? Wacky? This one will have a little bit of everything, guaranteed.
1. How will Phil respond?
Let's start with Kessel, and really, isn't there something absolutely compelling about Kessel's role, or at least potential role, in this series? Unhappy in the spotlight at the best of times, Kessel will be in demand on an ongoing basis from the large media contingent that follows both of these teams. Oh, the scrums Kessel will create. But on the ice, he has the potential to more than justify the controversial deal that made him a Leaf. He's certainly hot enough to tilt the scales in favor of the Leafs, having scored 10 goals and 18 points in 12 games in April as the Leafs avoided the slide that has marked all of their seasons since their last playoff appearance. Kessel has scored in three straight games heading into the playoffs and, just for fun, his 20 goals on the season are two more than the top goal scorer on the Bruins. So how does Kessel respond to what will be unprecedented attention and scrutiny of his every move on the ice? Does he rise to the occasion and silence the skeptics? Or not? Either way, it will be a compelling story in what promises to be a compelling series.
2. There will be truculence
Former Leafs GM Brian Burke -- who was fired on the eve of this lockout-shortened season -- had promised to deliver a hard-hitting, glove-dropping team when he arrived in Toronto from Anaheim, where he had built a hard-hitting, glove-dropping team that won a Stanley Cup in 2007. Well, with former Ducks coach Randy Carlyle behind the bench, the Leafs have become that team. They led the NHL in major penalties while also morphing into a deep, dangerous offensive team that ranked sixth in goals scored per game. Guess what? Head coach Claude Julien's Bruins don't like to be pushed around either, and they finished with the fourth-highest number of major penalties. A battle of wills? An Eastern Conference scout talked about the Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 as being relentless on the puck and punishing all opponents that dared to go into a corner looking for that puck. The Bruins aren't that team now, but if there's any team that might draw that team out of hiding, it would be the Maple Leafs. If that team stays in hiding, though, and the Leafs can impose their will physically, the Leafs will be difficult to dislodge.
3. The Bruins are missing their snarl
When the Bruins lost 4-2 to the Ottawa Senators Sunday night, blowing a chance to move into the second seed in the Eastern Conference and dropping into fourth for a date with the Leafs, it marked the seventh time in their last nine outings where they failed to win. And it's not just the losing; it's the manner in which the Bruins have let the Northeast Division get away from them. They have lost their snarl, lost their edge. Against Ottawa, they took foolish penalties, and after battling back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game, they couldn't close the deal.
"What we've all been waiting for is for them to throw the switch and start competing again," an Eastern Conference scout said.
When the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, they rolled four hard-checking lines, all of which were capable of producing offense. GM Peter Chiarelli tried to address those concerns by adding Jarome Iginla from Calgary at the trade deadline, but Iginla ended up in Pittsburgh. Chiarelli added Jaromir Jagr, who has been effective, but the team's play is still lacking. Can the Bruins find the switch that will reveal that championship caliber again? Chiarelli wondered the same thing aloud to ESPN.com recently -- or, more to the point, he hoped his team realized that believing in that kind of switch isn't realistic. If they can find that style of play again, "they can go toe-to-toe with anybody," the scout told ESPN.com. If not, they are an easy mark.
4. Lucic has to show up
If Phil Kessel is the guy feeling the heat for the Leafs, then it's fair to say that Boston power forward Milan Lucic is under extreme pressure to rediscover his game -- and in a hurry. In some ways, Lucic is emblematic of what has been ailing the Bruins in recent weeks. After scoring 56 goals in the last two seasons (production that earned him a big contract extension), Lucic struggled this season and finished with just seven goals in 46 games. Things got so bad that Julien made Lucic a healthy scratch last week to make room for prospect Carl Soderberg. When Nathan Horton was injured in a ridiculous fight with Iginla a week ago, Lucic came back into the lineup and showed a little more jump, but he's still managed to score just three goals in his last 31 games. "He's the key to the postseason. Maybe he doesn't want to be, but the team follows his lead," the Eastern Conference scout said. "When he's the biggest, toughest guy on the ice, the team responds to it."
5. Can Reimer best Rask?
One of the biggest stories -- or is it non-stories? -- of the trade deadline period was the Leafs' contemplation of adding a veteran netminder to either back up James Reimer or take over if the going got rough in the playoffs. They had late discussions with the Vancouver Canucks about Roberto Luongo and also had discussions with Calgary about the availability of Miikka Kiprusoff, but ultimately decided to reward Reimer for his strong play by maintaining the status quo. And, to be sure, Reimer has been and done everything the Leafs could have asked for this season. The 25-year-old turned in a 19-8-5 record with a solid .924 save percentage and four shutouts. Still, the perception is that the Bruins will hold an edge in goal even though Bruins starter Tuukka Rask's numbers are only slightly better than Reimer's, having gone 19-10-5 with a .929 save percentage. But Rask has playoff experience and was part of a Bruins team that won a Cup in 2011. If the Leafs are going to upset the Bruins, Reimer will have to prove he is at the very least Rask's equal.
• This should be a terrific series. The Bruins give up very little but struggle offensively, while the Leafs have proved to be a more dynamic offensive club while improving on their special teams. Still, whether we buy the "switch" theory or not, we still believe in the Bruins' ability to rediscover the old Bruins. Bruins in 6