By Allan Muir
Five quick thoughts on the players and situations that could have an impact on tonight’s must-watch Game 7 between the Bruins and Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET on CNBC), one of two winner-takes-all matchups on tap tonight:
1. Reimer’s goaltending: Has any goaltender stepped up his game in the playoffs to the same degree as Toronto’s James Reimer? After a rough start in Game 1, his save percentage (.932) has climbed higher than what he posted during the regular season (.924), all while facing 237 shots through six games, an average of 39.5 per game. He’s stopped 72 of the last 74 he’s faced, holding the Bruins to a single goal in each of the past two games as the Leafs staved off elimination. Reimer is playing his best hockey of the season at the most critical juncture. If he maintains this level, the Leafs win Game 7.
2. Gardiner’s surprising play: The must-watch player tonight? Toronto’s Jake Gardiner. Two weeks ago, he wasn’t regarded as one of Toronto’s top-six blueline options, but a finger injury suffered by Mike Kostka in Game 1 opened the door. After a nervous debut in Game 2, Gardiner has been a revelation, changing the complexion of Toronto’s transition game with his speed and passing skills and giving Boston’s defenders fits with his daring raids deep into their zone as a fourth attacker. The confidence and imagination he displayed om Sunday night was staggering, but he’s still a work in progress. It’ll be interesting to see if coach Randy Carlyle keeps the green light turned on, or if he tries to rein Gardiner in … and if he does, what impact that will have on Toronto’s attack.
3. Travel woes: Leafs fans had a little fun with the story about plane troubles stranding the Bruins overnight in Toronto, but this deviation from routine could put Boston in a tough spot. Hockey players are creatures of habit, and traveling on game day is something that rarely happens, especially for a flight of this duration. Keep an eye on Boston’s legs early to see if the B’s show any ill effects.
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4. Game 7 experience: Every one of these guys grew up playing a Game 7 in his driveway or on the local pond, but that “experience” doesn’t stack up to the real thing. The Leafs are playing with house money in a game few thought they’d get to, and that may help keep them loose in the early going. But every Bruin in the dressing tonight has been there before and they proved they can stand up to the pressure and win with a trio of seventh-heaven victories just two years ago. The only player who hasn’t won a Game 7 with them? Tuukka Rask. As cool as he’s been under the gun, he’s probably the last one to worry about. But it’s still worth noting that he’s 0-1 in this situation, having lost to Philadelphia in one of the most crushing defeats in franchise history.
5. Boston’s best bet: Boston’s fans have to look at it this way: Their team has made it to Game 7 of a playoff series despite getting a total of just three points from Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand through the first six matches. Outside of Bergeron, who has generated some premium scoring chances in the past two games, there’s nothing to suggest that this line is ready to play an impact role tonight other than that it’s due for a good game. With Marchand leading the team in scoring, the trio combined for 100 points and a plus-70 rating during the regular season. Clearly, these guys are better than what they’ve shown. Corey Perry’s dreadful series in Anaheim proves that talent and potential don’t count for much, but Bruins fans looking for a reason to believe will find that this is their best bet.