By Joshua Clipperton in Toronto
Sheldon Keefe’s sole focus Friday was for his team to emerge unscathed on the injury front.
That mission firmly accomplished, the Toronto Maple Leafs now flip the page to the playoffs.
Up next? Just the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
William Nylander scored twice as Toronto defeated the Boston Bruins 5-2 in a regular-season finale that saw both teams rest most of their stars.
“Bizarre game to coach,” Keefe said. “Your bench is weird. You get guys playing in all sorts of different spots. You’re trying to do well in the game, yet you’re trying not to use guys too much.
“I was monitoring ice time more than I was monitoring the play on the ice to be honest. It was a weird game that way, but the guys did a good job.”
With the victory, the Leafs ensured they will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, while the Bruins are set to meet the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Back-to-back champs, one of the best teams in the league,” Nylander said of Toronto’s next opponent. “It’s going to be a tough series, but it’ll be a good battle for us.”
Ilya Mikheyev, Nick Abruzzese, with his first NHL goal, and Pierre Engvall, into an empty net, also scored for Toronto (54-21-7). Erik Kallgren made 24 saves.
The Leafs’ 115 points in the standings is 10 more than the previous franchise record set in 2017-18, while those 54 wins are also a high-water mark.
“They can be difficult games to play in,” Toronto forward Jason Spezza said of Friday. “It doesn’t have a normal feel.”
Trent Frederic and Jake DeBrusk replied for Boston (51-26-5), which got 22 stops from Jeremy Swayman. Craig Smith had two assists.
“You want to play every game you can,” Bruins centre Charlie Coyle said. “No matter what night it is, who you’re playing, you want to be in the lineup and make an impact.”
Having already locked up the Atlantic Division’s No. 2 seed, the Leafs rested Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares up front, while No. 1 goaltender Jack Campbell served as the backup.
The Bruins, meanwhile, were minus Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall. Charlie McAvoy sat out on defence.
The combined absences from both clubs added up to nearly US$73 million in sidelined salary-cap dollars.
Playing the second of a back-to-back, Boston still had a chance of catching Tampa for third in the division and a shot at facing Toronto in the first round entering play, but will instead finish as the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card seed.
“We accomplished what we wanted to do,” Leafs’ defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We’re in a good spot to leave here and use the next two days to prepare for some important hockey.”
The Bruins scored 70 seconds into the opening period of a game that had an exhibition feel when Frederic poked his eighth goal of the season past Kallgren.
Toronto responded at 3:51 on the power play after Boston’s Marc McLaughlin was assessed a four-minute penalty for high-sticking when Mark Giordano’s point shot glanced off Mikheyev in front for his 21st of 2021-22.
The Leafs took the lead at 13:16 when Nylander stole the puck from McLaughlin and raced in alone on Swayman before adding to a career-high goal total with his 33rd.
Dressed for his ninth NHL game after signing with Toronto following the conclusion of his U.S. college season in late March, Abruzzese then scored his first in the NHL on a nice deflection of a Rielly point shot with 6.7 seconds left in the period.
“It felt really good,” Aburzzese said. “Had some chances in the past couple games.
“Nice to have that one go in.”
Rielly has been impressed with how the 22-year-old former Harvard player thinks the game since arriving in Toronto.
“He’s not overly big or scary looking,” Rielly said with a little grin. “But he does a good job and wins a lot of battles and plays right.”
The Bruins started to throw their weight around in the second, but there still wasn’t much emotion until late in the period when Tomas Nosek cross-checked Toronto defenceman Timothy Liljegren from behind into the boards.
Rielly responded by briefly grappling with the Boston forward for offsetting minor penalties before Nylander scored his 34th eight minutes into the third.
Nick Foligno, a Toronto trade deadline acquisition last season, jammed a puck home with 9:36 left in regulation on a sequence that was correctly challenged for offside.
DeBrusk eventually made it 4-2 with his 25th with 7:11 left in regulation, but Kallgren shut the door from there before Engvall scored his 15th into an empty net.
“We’ve got 82 games in the books,” Keefe said. “Now we get to play for real.”
Notes: The Leafs have home-ice advantage for the first time since 2004 — the last time they won a playoff series … Toronto has never played Tampa in the playoffs … The Bruins eliminated the Leafs in seven games in the opening round in both 2018 and 2019.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2022.
Feature image via The Canadian Press