NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Montreal Canadiens versus Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto cruised to first place in the Canadien North Division with a 35-14-7 record and 77 points. The Maple Leafs enter the postseason with high expectations but the burden of a long recent history of playoff disappointments. The last time the organization won a playoff series was in 2004. They caught a break from the league when makeshift divisions were created with them separated from Atlantic Division rivals Boston and Tampa Bay, who have been thorns in their sides over the years. The pressure has only increased for the team to advance from the North Division playoffs to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock after a 9-10-4 start last year. Sheldon Keefe was promoted from their minor league affiliate with the expectation that he would make better use of the core young talent on the team. The group responded by finishing in eighth place in the Eastern Conference while playing at a pace that would have generated 103 points during a full regular season. But losing to Columbus in the Stanley Cup qualifying round continued left more questions for the franchise.
General manager Kyle Dubas was active in the offseason. He signed T.J. Brodie from Calgary to upgrade the blue line. Adding veterans Joe Thornton, Joey Anderson, Wayne Simmons, and Zach Bogosian offered the team more players with playoff experience to bolster the character in the locker room. Dubas continued this endeavor at the trade deadline by acquiring forwards Nick Foligno and Riley Nash from Columbus and defenseman Ben Hutton from Anaheim.
Auston Matthews leads the team with 47 goals and 81 points as he continues to thrive after getting more minutes per game under Keefe. Mitch Marner has 67 points playing the top line partnered with Matthews. John Tavares added 19 goals and 31 assists anchoring the second line.
Keefe will be giving Jack Campbell his first opportunity as the number one goalie in the postseason. Injuries to Frederik Anderson created the opportunity for Campbell to take the job. He responded with a 2.15 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage which helped him post a 17-3-2 record in his 22 starts. Anderson has a career 10-14 record in the playoffs with the Maple Leafs, and this is the final year of his contract after a disappointing 2019-20.
Montreal held on to the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division despite losing their last five games. The Canadiens finished the regular season with a 24-21-11 record, good for 59 points.
The team entered the year with momentum after upsetting Pittsburgh in the qualifying round in the bubble last year before giving Philadelphia a competitive series before losing in six games. All four of Montreal’s losses to the Flyers were by only one goal.
The Canadiens started fast this season only to struggle with injuries and some disappointing performances from players they were counting on to continue their momentum after being the last team to qualify for the bubble last season. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the third pick in the 2019 draft, had a breakout postseason in the bubble last year, but the center has taken a step back this year. Shea Weber’s skills are deteriorating at 35-years of age. Top-line right wing Brendan Gallagher missed 21 games to injury. Jonathan Drouin, the number three pick in the 2013 draft, played 44 games before taking a leave of absence for a non-COVID illness that will keep him out of the postseason.
The midseason slump was too much for the Montreal management, who relieved head coach Claude Julien of his duties on February 24th. Assistant head coach Dominique Ducharme took over on an interim basis.
Forward Tyler Toffoli leads the team with 28 goals in 52 games. Defenseman Jeff Petry has added 30 assists. 21-year-old center Nick Suzuki had 15 goals and 21 assists after a breakout performance in the bubble.
Goaltender Carey Price has struggled with post-concussion symptoms for much of the season, but he appears ready to be between the pipes for the Canadiens in this series. Price only had a .901 save percentage and a 2.64 goals-against-average in 25 games. Price has not posted elite goaltending numbers since 2016-17, yet the Montreal faithful hope he can flip the switch just as he did last year. After a subpar regular season, Price had a .937 save percentage in his ten games in the Toronto bubble.
Toronto won seven of the ten meetings between these two teams in the regular season. This showdown is the first meeting in the postseason for the two Canadian representatives in the NHL original six in 42 years.
The opening game of this best-of-seven series begins on Thursday at 7:30 PM ET on the NHL Network and then on the USA Network at the conclusion of the Tampa Bay/Florida game broadcast. BetOnline lists Toronto as a -200 money line favorite with the total set at 5.5.