BOSTON — Halfway through the NHL season, the Boston Bruins have lost five games in regulation. One of those came against the Seattle Kraken at TD Garden on Thursday, their first regulation loss at home this season.
Another came Nov. 5, 2-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the sole game between the two best teams in the Atlantic Division.
The Maple Leafs will get another crack at the top team in the Atlantic, and the NHL, at TD Garden on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SNO, SNW, NESN, SN NOW).
And yet, as Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Thursday, “It’s not much of a race at this point.”
The Bruins (32-5-4) are nine points ahead of the Maple Leafs (26-10-7) in the Atlantic, and as Keefe pointed out, Boston has been on a historic pace.
“They’re playing at a pace that’s the highest winning percentage in the history of the NHL,” Keefe said. “But we would like to make it so that they have to try to maintain that pace or we’re going to be right there. So that’s really it.”
That only means Toronto needs to make the most of its chances.
“They’ve been the class of the League, for sure,” defenseman Mark Giordano said. “We played them early in the year. It was a good game. They’re a fast team, back-and-forth sort of game, but [Saturday] it’s going to be an exciting game to play in. I think obviously we want to see where they’re at and where we’re at right now and it’ll be a good test.
“If we want to give ourselves a chance of catching them, we’ve got to chip away, chip away, throughout the next bunch of weeks.”
And it’s possible the Maple Leafs are catching the Bruins at a good time. There was the hoopla of Boston hosting the 2023 Discover NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2, a 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Fenway Park, followed by a weeklong trip to the West Coast, where the Bruins defeated the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks by a combined 16-5 score.
They’ll be two days removed from the 3-0 loss to the Kraken, which led coach Jim Montgomery to mention “mental fatigue” as a culprit.
Then again, the Bruins haven’t lost consecutive games all season.
“It’s a bigger game than the average regular-season game,” Montgomery said. “We need to get our game in order and tomorrow is a good opportunity against one of the teams … I would say Toronto, Carolina and ourselves have probably been the three teams that have been consistently the best so far this year. So it’s a good test for us.”
The Maple Leafs will be buoyed by the return of Auston Matthews, who has 47 points (20 goals, 27 assists) in 41 games this season. The forward missed two games because of an undisclosed injury, and then Matthews woke up sick Thursday, Keefe said.
Video: Matthews’ 2 goals propel Maple Leafs to 2-1 victory
Matthews scored both goals when the teams played in November, but that game was more about what the Maple Leafs did defensively, limiting the Bruins to a season-low 21 shots on goal.
Montgomery believed the Kraken did some of the same things defensively that the Maple Leafs did, which the Bruins hope will better prepare them for Saturday.
“Very similar to what Seattle did,” Montgomery said. “They were five together. They were over top of us. They protected the middle of the ice really well in their own end. That game, coupled with the game last night, are learning opportunities for us. How to create more offense when we’re playing teams that play tight checking.”
But mostly, the Bruins and the Maple Leafs are looking forward to the challenge and to the opportunity. It’s a No. 1 vs. No. 2 scenario, with Toronto tied with the Carolina Hurricanes (26-9-7) for second in the NHL in points.
“That’ll be a really fun one,” Maple Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin said. “Those are the games you really enjoy playing. It’s going to be tough. They’ve been rolling. … I think we’ll be very, very pumped up for that game.”
The Bruins will be too. They came into practice Friday with what Montgomery called “an empty feeling in your stomach, and we haven’t had that.”
He said it’s something that could make a team angry, could annoy them just enough to rev up as yet another big opponent comes into a building where they’ve been dominant all season.
Which all aligns for a big night Saturday.
“We’ve kind of had that date circled on our calendar that that’s going to be a big one,” Maple Leafs forward Zach Aston-Reese said. “That gets us going into this little last bit of season we have left. We get the win there, I think it’ll be huge for our confidence.”
NHL.com columnist Nicholas J.Cotsonika contributed to this report