What Opponents Of Bruins, Celtics Said Reinforces Title Hopes For Both

The Garden might want to keep June dates open


February 2

The Bruins and Celtics delivered a pair of Wednesday night whoopings against division rivals that should continue to put their respective leagues on notice.

The Bruins horsed around with the Maple Leafs for two periods in Toronto. They then decided to impose their will as big brother, placing their hand in the middle of Toronto’s forehead, and the Leafs flailed before petering out. The NHL’s best third-period team outscored Toronto 3-1 in the final 20, including two goals in a span of just over three minutes to cruise to a 5-2 win.

Meanwhile, on Causeway Street, the Celtics led 46-16 in the first, led by 49 at one point and laughed their way to a 43-point win over the hapless Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden.

Certainly, the B’s and C’s put forth impressive performances that speak for themselves. However, it’s what their opponents said after the game that further solidifies both as the preeminent championship favorites.

In Toronto, the Maple Leafs came away believing they’re close to the Bruins. Boston has won two of three this season with its division rival, but the Leafs swept the season series last year. Then, of course, the last three playoff series between the Original Six rivals have gone seven games.

Yet, as close as Toronto might feel it is to the Bruins, there’s still a significant enough gap — and the Maple Leafs know it. Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe called the Bruins “the class of the league” after the game, another loss that leaves the Leafs searching for answers.

“The margins are thin,” Keefe told reporters, per Sportsnet. “But over the course of the season, it’s significant. They just stay with it. They’re 40 goals better than any team in the NHL. So, it’s a significant gap between them and the rest of the league when you look at the season in its entirety.

“But in the game, we’re right there. That’s what’s tough. … But the difference between being right there and winning the game, being on the other side of it, that’s significant. That’s a significant challenge.”

Leafs captain John Tavares agreed.

“They’ve shown they’re at the top of the league all year,” he said, per Sportsnet. “Shows our need for growth and areas we’ve got to be better. But we’re right there. Had good looks, good opportunities. … We have to be dialed in — every little detail.”

That such conversations are rarely had in the Bruins room following games this season is just another intangible way to try and encapsulate what’s been an utterly dominant season thus far. The NHL heads to the All-Star break with Boston seven points clear of any team, 13 ahead of Toronto, with a plus-81 goal differential that is 41 goals better than the next-best teams.

The randomness of the Stanley Cup playoffs makes it hard to say anything short of a championship would be a major disappointment. However, the Bruins have been so dominant for so long that they’re nearing that unenviable position.

And then there are the Celtics. Wednesday’s win was a reminder to Brooklyn, the Eastern Conference and really the rest of the NBA that when motivated, Boston can open a can on anyone in the league. It’s not entirely surprising that after a sluggish stretch against some also-rans, the Celtics put forth their most impressive showing of the season against a rival with similar title aspirations.

And the beatdown left Brooklyn stinging. The Celtics not only delivered the first blow but the second, third and fourth. They then got in their car backed over the Nets, got out and picked them up, just to do it all over again.

“They hit first, and it hurt,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn told reporters after the game, as transcribed by the New York Post. “We weren’t able to get off the mat like we needed to and respond like we have in the past. So you take this one on the chin, and you keep moving and learn from it.”

He added: “It’s a physicality piece that we didn’t bring to the table. The energy and effort we needed to beat this team, we were lacking that from the beginning of the game.”

Kyrie Irving had a similar assessment.

“They have a chip on their shoulder, it’s clear as day that they want to win the championship, and they’re enot wasting any time in the regular season. I just felt like we were one of those teams in the way. And we just can’t be one of those teams in the way. We’ve got to be one of those teams that stands up to them and at least shows them that we’re gonna be competition for them.”

It has been a while since the Nets have been able to do that. The Celtics have won 10 straight over Brooklyn, including a first-round playoff sweep last year. Three of those wins have come by at least 20 points, too.

This isn’t meant to overreact to one night in February with a long way to go. And both Toronto and Brooklyn were without bona fide superstars in Auston Matthews and Kevin Durant, respectively. But it’s just the latest evidence that both Boston winter clubs have something special brewing, and the Garden might want to keep dates open through June.

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Boston bruins forward Taylor Hall and Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov
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