Watching the Maple Leafs dismantle the Jets in the regular season opener loosened the ghosts that lurk in the corners of my mind, fuelling optimism of a playoff spot followed by longevity into the spring.
It was a solid opening game, with an entire season to go, and each game will present its own unique confrontation. One of the challenges will be the schedule itself, with the Leafs and division rival Montreal Canadiens on a collision course en-route to a playoff berth.
My expectations for the 2017-18 season are for the Leafs to make the playoffs, but they will require some of the fortune and good health from last season. I like the young core up front of Matthews, Nylander and Marner to dictate tempo and produce as well as their rookie seasons. Last season, Toronto made the playoffs because the Lightning came up short due to injury and despite a late season surge; the New York Islanders faltered and failed to meet expectations of the previous spring’s playoffs, while Florida simply imploded due to a broken lineup early in the season and a full lineup contingent that disappointed late in the season when a playoff spot was within reach.
Expectations are different for Montreal following a 100-point season and first round playoff exit. The Habs oddly dismantled the mobility on their blue line this past summer. It’s like they adopted a traditional defensive concept and built around that ‘prevent’ and protect the house strategy, banking on the ability to get pucks up to their forwards.
I have my own thoughts on the rushing defenseman and how it’s becoming less of an advantage of having blueliners carry the puck, but Montreal took that to an extreme. I’d expect more dumps to center ice, forcing puck battles into the neutral zone, or ‘long puck’ — trying to connect over long distances with outlets off of forwards cheating the zone. Even on the breakout, opponents could focus more squarely among the Habs forwards, negating long passes and quick-ups head manning the puck.
The effects here won’t enhance the offense, and I think they are a bubble team if they can’t score their way out of trouble. A Carey Price injury could be devastating blow to playoff hopes, to state the obvious.
So if Montreal and Toronto are essentially in the bottom half of the Conference playoff dogfight, a scheduling quirk could be more relevant.
The image below lists teams in the first column facing an opponent playing on back-to-back nights. The row across the top is the rested team facing the opponent on the second night. The “California Corridor” is where the Kings and Ducks trade off playing teams on back-to-back nights while road teams travel through Southern California. Alberta and Florida have similar effects, but that’s out of the scope here.
In Toronto’s case, they face a team in the first game of a back-to-back set, with that tired team then visiting a rested Canadiens team the next night, six times. Three of the games are against Central Division opponents and three are from the Pacific Division. The reciprocal, where Toronto is the rested team, happens only once.
This puts the Leafs at a double disadvantage. They face a rested opponent (the Leafs play every Game 1 opponent with at least one day of rest) and then beat up on them. They then send them up the road to play their rested divisional rival (and potential playoff obstacle).
In the lone game where the Canadiens are the Game 1 opponent (Colorado), they are actually the tired team on a back-to-back playing a rested opponent (Colorado). The Avs travel to Toronto the next night.
The table below breaks down the schedule for both clubs.
This scheduling quirk isn’t uncommon. During the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, Toronto played as a rested team five times against Ottawa, when the Senators were playing on back-to-back nights. Toronto won four of the five games, taking eight of the 10 points away from a divisional rival.
Schedules will bounce between advantages and disadvantages as the seasons turn and availability of venue dates become impediments to schedule makers.
Could the Leafs and Habs be heading toward a deadly battle that could determine their playoff fate? Or can each gather enough separation between them to negate any effects of these games? I think they will both be fighting for final spot, and if they do, this scheduling factor could be the difference.