Leafs will face Lightning in the playoffs after beating Bruins in season finale

They say to be the best, you have to beat the best.

The Maple Leafs will try to do just that in the Stanley Cup playoffs starting Monday night, after beating the Boston Bruins 5-2 in Friday night’s “rest your stars” regular-season finale before a crowd of 18,219 at Scotiabank Arena.

The win booked a first-round series against the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and bumped the Bruins to a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. They’ll face the Carolina Hurricanes. The Lightning closed out their schedule with a 6-4 road victory over the New York Islanders.

The win was the Leafs’ 54th of the season, extending their franchise record. They will have home-ice advantage in the first round, and open a series at home for the first time since 2004.

“It’s going to be extremely exciting, and I’m happy we’re starting at home,” Leafs winger Wayne Simmonds said, adding that while the Leafs established several records along the way, the playoffs are all that matters now.

The Leafs finished second in the Atlantic Division behind the Florida Panthers, with Tampa third.

The Leafs-Lightning series will be a star-studded matchup featuring Toronto’s Auston Matthews (60 goals) and Mitch Marner (97 points) against Andrei Vasilevskiy, Steve Stamkos (who had a hat-trick Friday), Braydon Point, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. Matthews and Marner are among the best all-around players in the league, while Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last season and Hedman is a perennial contender for the Norris.

Vasilevskiy has struggled a bit of late, however, allowing seven goals in two games — pulled from one of those — before rebounding in an 8-1 win over the Leafs last week. In the Lightning’s two recent Cup runs, he’s 34-14 in 48 starts with identical 1.90 goals-against averages.

For the Leafs, the goal is to change their playoff narrative after five consecutive first-round exits. They haven’t won the Stanley Cup in 55 years, the longest current drought.

Arguably the most painful loss of the five occurred last spring when they blew a 3-1 series lead and lost in seven to archrival Montreal. While the Leafs talk about learning from defeat, the Montreal setback left a mark.

Leaf Kyle Clifford knocks the Bruins' Connor Clifton into the crossbar while hunting for a rebound in Friday night's game at Scotiabank Arena.

“It all starts on Monday,” said Simmonds, “but it definitely is a motivational factor, the way it went down last year.

“We played a lot of great hockey this season, and obviously individual accolades are great… all those guys who set career highs. But when it comes down to it, it’s about the two points, and in the playoffs the four wins (per round).

“Last year was a letdown, and we know we have to be better in the clutch moments.”

The Leafs and Bruins rested their top players Friday, but the game turned into a decent affair regardless, with Toronto outshooting Boston 27-26.

William Nylander made it 3-1 in the first period after stealing a puck near his own zone and breaking in alone before deking Boston goalie Jeremy Swayman for his 33rd goal of the season. Nylander finished with 79 points in 81 games.

Leaf Nick Abruzzese also had a memorable night, scoring his career first NHL goal.

Erik Källgren recorded the win in net, with playoff starter Jack Campbell getting the night off. Called upon after a long-term groin injury to Petr Mrazek, Kallgren finished 8-4-1.


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