TORONTO – The big, bad bully of the block is back in town.
No team has owned the Leafs quite like the imposing Boston Bruins, set to visit the Air Canada Centre for the second time this season on Saturday with another matchup looming at TD Garden on Monday.
The Bruins have captured the last eight meetings between the two clubs – including both matchups this year – outscoring the Leafs by an eye-popping 41-12 margin.
"Boston's a good team," said the scorching hot Nazem Kadri, eight points in his last three games pacing the Leafs. "We've played them a couple times already this year and unfortunately came out on the wrong end of it so we owe 'em a little bit. I bet we'll be ready to play."
While they've dropped both games to Boston in the 2013 calendar, the proceedings have not been anything near the nightmare of a year ago.
The Leafs actually played one of their better games in recent memory against the Bruins last time out, a handful of mistakes looming large in a 4-2 road defeat on March 7. Only a month earlier in their first matchup of the year in Toronto, one goal from Chris Bourque decided a 1-0 slugfest.
"I think we've done a lot of real good things against them and we've lost a couple of tight games," Dion Phaneuf noted of the two battles this season.
Fearsome with their combination of scrappiness, skill and dogged work ethic, the Bruins have picked apart the Leafs in recent years, winning 25 of the past 35 matchups. En route to a six-game season sweep a year ago, Boston outscored Toronto 36-10, winning by finals of 8-0, 5-4, 4-1, 6-3, 7-0 and 6-2.
"They don't do a lot of things wrong," Kadri said of the Bruins, who sit eight points up on the Leafs as the fourth seed in the East. "[But] by all means they're not an invincible team. We've got to give them respect, respect their skill and hard work, but at the same time we've got to approach the game-plan the way we want to play and set the tone early."
Recent troubles defensively and in goal will have to be minimized. The Leafs have allowed at least four goals in eight of their past 11 games – they've lost 10 of 12 when giving up that many this season – neither James Reimer nor Ben Scrivens seizing hold of the crease. Pockets of incomplete hockey will also need to be eradicated.
And without the suspended Joffrey Lupul for the second straight game, the Leafs will need to find a jump-start offensively – managing a single goal in the two previous meetings – this against the second-ranked defensive club in the NHL.
"I thought we did a better job matching up against them last time we played them," MacArthur said of the close loss in Beantown, describing the Bruins as "probably the closest team to playing 60 minutes every night".
He and the Leafs have collected only five of a possible 14 points in their past seven games (1-3-3) and are about to enter an increasingly difficult stretch of the schedule. Snatching a victory or even two against a team of the Bruins caliber would go a long way towards setting an optimistic course as the race to the postseason kicks into high gear.
"We know what we've got to do," Kadri concluded.
The critical test awaits.