BOSTON—The irony is not lost on either Tyler Bozak or Carl Gunnarsson that, even though they are no longer Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins stand in their way in the playoffs. Again.
The two St. Louis Blues see the positives in knowing how resilient the Bruins can be and how crazy the TD Garden crowd can get. “It’s actually kind of nice for me to have the experience playing in this building, in the playoffs, in that atmosphere,” Bozak said Sunday, on the eve of the Stanley Cup final. “That will help me a little bit.”
The presence of Bozak, Gunnarsson and Alex Steen, who was traded by Toronto to St. Louis in 2008, give Leafs fans someone to cheer for in the Cup final, rather than simply rooting against Brad Marchand and the Bruins.
Bozak was a Leaf for nine years, involved in both the 2013 and 2018 first-round, seven-game losses to Boston, though he missed the last two games of the 2013 series due to injury. Gunnarsson, a Leaf for five seasons, was a minus-2 in the 5-4 overtime loss in 2013, when the Leafs coughed up a 4-1 third period lead.
“That was no fun, so let’s change that,” said Gunnarsson, a Blue since 2014. “It was a big game and we lost in a manner no one wants to go through. Stuff happens. You can’t linger on it. That was years and years ago.”
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Both will be able to make their own history if they can help the Blues to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
“Just to be in this moment, and have this opportunity is pretty cool,” Bozak said. “We have a great group of guys in our room. It’s a pretty crazy season for us and what we’ve been through and how it’s gone. I’m just excited for this opportunity. It’s something you dream of your whole life. No matter who we were playing, I’d feel the same way.”
The Blues have had one of the wonkiest seasons on record, going from last place overall on Jan. 2 to the Cup final. A coaching change and the hot goaltending of rookie Jordan Binnington helped change St. Louis’s fate. Gunnarsson thinks that surely matches a few Bruins Game 7 wins.
“Coming from last place in the league and getting all the way here, if that doesn’t show you resilience, I don’t know what will,” Gunnarsson said. “I guess we have two good resilient groups here.”
Much has changed for Bozak, who signed with St. Louis last summer as John Tavares inked a deal with the Maple Leafs. Bozak wears No. 21 now, his number from his University of Denver days.
“Twenty-one was my favourite number growing up and playing,” Bozak said. “When I got to Toronto, it was taken. They just doubled it and gave me 42. When I signed with St. Louis, I wanted to change things up a little bit.”
He also plays further down the lineup, on the third line usually between Patrick Maroon and Robert Thomas. The 32-year-old had 13 goals and 25 assists in 72 regular-season games and has five goals and five assists in 19 playoff games.
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Another big change? Less media.
“You get away from the game when you leave the rink whereas, in Toronto, it’s kind of hard to get away from the game. It’s nice to have that little break.”
While he no longer lives in Toronto — he bought Paul Stastny’s former home in St. Louis and spends his summers in Denver — Bozak watched the Raptors clinch a berth in the NBA final on Saturday.
“I was really pumped,” Bozak said. “The city of Toronto looked real excited.”
He also keeps in touch with his friends among the Leafs. “A lot of them have reached out and said good luck, they’re rooting for me. It’s nice. I keep in touch with a lot of those guys still, I’m really good friends with some.”
One friends and former teammate he hasn’t heard from was Phil Kessel, who left Toronto only to win the Stanley Cup twice in Pittsburgh. “He could probably give me advice, but I haven’t talked to him yet. Maybe I’ll reach out to him.”
Kessel and Bozak might be able to compare rings if things work out.
“It’s what you dream about your whole life growing up as a kid, to have this opportunity and to play for the Stanley Cup,” Bozak said. “Whenever you’re playing on your backyard rink or the pond, it’s always to score the winning goal to win the Stanley Cup. You work hard your whole life and all year, and this is why you play, is to get this opportunity.”
Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran