Habs or Leafs fan – this is a matchup many have been waiting to see. The last time the two original 6 rivals played a post season tilt was in 1979. Montreal beat the leafs in the Stanley cup quarterfinals that year and went on to win the cup. Unfortunately, Montreal will not be sporting a star studded roster compared to their 1979 team with hall of famers Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt, Serve Savard, and Ken Dryden.
Montreal has not lived up to expectations over the past 5 years, only making the playoffs twice, though surprised the hockey world in the bubble last year upsetting Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in a best of 5 play in series before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers. GM Marc Bergevin did not appear to be satisfied with those results and made himself a check list for the offseason where he acquired power horse Josh Anderson, sniper Tyler Toffoli, veteran cup winner Corey Perry, and quality backup goaltender Jake Allen who very well could have been Bergevin’s best signing after seeing Carey Price miss the last chunk of the regular season with concussion like symptoms. Montreal started off the 20-21 season as one of the hottest teams in the league going 10-3 in their first 13, but injuries to Gallagher, Price, Weber, Byron, and Tatar hindered them later in the season – barely qualifying for the playoffs with a 4th place finish and 24-21-11 record.
Toronto Maples Leafs are heavy favorites going into game 1. After capturing 1st place in the Canadian division going 35-14-7 and dominating their season series (7-2-1) against the Canadiens this year. The Leafs have one of the most lethal offenses in the national hockey league led by this years’ regular season goal scoring leader – Austin Matthews, who lit the lamp 41 times in 52 games. This guy can beat goaltenders from anywhere on the ice and if he is open – Mitch Marner will find him. Leafs netminder Frederick Anderson suffered a knee injury in March leaving him out for the remainder of the season giving former first round draft pick Jack Campbell a chance to shine. Campbell, went on a 10-0 run late in the season and propelled the Leafs into their comfortable 1st place finish. Leafs fans should expect to see a rested Freddy Anderson back in between the pipes, his health will be key for the leafs to make a deep playoff run. Also, keep an eye out for Nick Foligno, this was a great trade deadline addition not only adding more experience but a solid utility forward that adds grit, knows how to play defense and can also put the puck in the net.
Keys to Success:
Stay out of the box– The Leafs scored on 20% of their powerplays this season, which was good enough for 17th in the league but please do not take this stat for granted. The Canadiens do not want Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner operating with a man advantage and if this series moves into a special teams battle, it will be very tough for Montreal to keep their heads above water.
Goaltending– The question all Habs fans want to know is which Carey Price are we going to see in net this post season? A healthy and focused Carey Price will be trouble for the Leafs and the former Vezina trophy winner could very well steal a series for Montreal as he did last year against the Penguins. Carey Price has not played an NHL game in almost two months now, so it will be interesting to see how he looks between the pipes Thursday night and do not be surprised to see Jake Allen take over in game 2 if Price has a bad game. Allen has been an excellent backup all year posting 2.68 goals against average and .908 save percentage.
Defense– Montreal has a solid core of defense led by veterans Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. If Montreal can transition the puck quickly out of the defensive zone, stay disciplined pinching in the offensive zone, and finish their checks- it should mitigate the leafs offensive zone time and frustrate their stars.
Scoring Depth– Look for Montreal to run all 4 lines and score by committee, not relying solely on Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki and Josh Anderson. Brendan Gallagher suffered a fractured thumb in April and the former 30 goal scorer should add much needed scoring depth to the team, though they will need veteran forwards Paul Byron, Corey Perry and Tomas Tatar to contribute to match the likes of Marner, Matthews, Tavares, Nylander
This series is set to take off Thursday night in Toronto at 7:30 and televised over NHL Network. We will see Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher and Shea Weber back in the lineup and it looks like young guns Alexander Romanov, Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be scratched, so look for Montreal to play a very physical game.
Prediction: Habs in 7