Separated by just one point in the Atlantic Division standings and on track for a meeting in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens prepare for their most meaningful meeting in recent memory tonight at the Bell Centre (7 p.m, CBC).
Mike Babcock put it best yesterday when asked about this matchup: “This is the first year [of his Leafs tenure] both teams look like real hockey clubs.” It’s no doubt a playoff series between these two teams — the first since 1979 — would be an absolute treat for both fan bases, although there is a lot left to be determined this season.
Making it all the more intriguing, both teams are playing some good hockey coming into this game. Only Philadelphia is hotter than Montreal at the moment, as the Habs are 8-1-1 in their last ten while the Leafs have won four of their last five.
As we saw early in the season when the Leafs squeezed out a win they probably didn’t deserve in the 2018-19 opener, Claude Julien’s Canadiens team is playing a faster, very determined brand of hockey this year. They’re fourth in the NHL in CF% and have averaged just under 55% of the shot attempts in their last ten games. They haven’t owned the critical ice quite as much (10th in slot shots percentage) on the season overall, but they certainly have in their last 10 games, controlling over 56% of the shots from the slot.
The Canadiens’ top line of Drouin-Danault-Gallagher, who’ve played close to 500 minutes together this year, are in dominant form at the moment. They’ve scored eight goals at 5-on-5 in ten games and are averaging over six shots on goal as a line over that span. Among lines that have played over 200 minutes together this year (of which there are 45), they rank third in relative Corsi. Expect Babcock to look for the Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner / Morgan Rielly – Jake Muzzin matchup there as much as possible.
That said, both teams are pretty confident in their ability to roll four lines this season as opposed to chasing matchups. The most surprising part of the Habs’ surprise season is their overall depth contributions up front; they currently have 10 regular forwards above .40 points-per-game compared to the Leafs‘ eight.
That’s enough credit where its due to the Habs, though, as the Leafs have the better top-end talent (three forwards and one defenseman above a point-per-game compared to the Habs’ 0), definitely have the ability to exploit a fairly shallow Habs defense core, and have had Carey Price’s number in the last three meetings (0-2-1, .859 save percentage) after finally ending Price’s run of 11 straight wins over the Leafs between 2014 and 2017.
This morning, it was announced that Leafs forward Tyler Ennis is cleared to play, although he won’t draw in tonight. Babcock has been tight-lipped on who will come out once Ennis is reinserted, but it would seem Frederik Gauthier moving to the press box and Par Lindholm back to center is the only likely option knowing Babcock’s reliance on Lindholm on the penalty kill. As far as tonight goes, there are no changes to the Leafs lineup that won on Wednesday against Ottawa.
Game Day Quotes
Mike Babcock on the Habs this season:
I was very impressed with the way they played against Winnipeg. I thought their structure, their detail, their work ethic [was good]. All their good players played well. They’re 8-1-1 their last ten. They’re feeling really good right now. We haven’t come in, since I’ve been the coach of the Leafs, where both teams were good teams. They were good, we weren’t good. They had an off year [last year], so this is the first year both teams look like they’re pretty good teams and look like they’re going in the right direction. I think makes it exciting for us and exciting for them.
Babcock on if his defense pairs will stay the same going forward:
We’ll just keep watching, how’s that? There’s lots of parts to that. Is [Rielly]’s game as good as it can be? That’s a big part as well. We’ll just see over time. I said right from the get go they’ll probably be some difference in pairs.
Babcock on Montreal’s top line:
I think they’re great — they’re playing with speed, they’ve got different dimensions. [Danault] is real responsible both ways, Gallagher is tenacious, Drouin can really pass the puck and shoot it. I think when you go through [lines] one through four, their groups are all playing well right now and that’s why they’re feeling it.
Claude Julien on Jake Muzzin and how he sees matchups going tonight:
He’s a good all-around defenceman. Good size, defensively very good. Our guys are just going to have to work through it — simple as that. I’m not going to start worrying about who they’re going to put against Danault. I want to get my matchups as best I can. I also want to keep the momentum hopefully in our favour more than having to do real hard matches all night.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#12 Patrick Marleau – #34 Auston Matthews – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#11 Zach Hyman – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#28 Connor Brown – #43 Nazem Kadri – #29 William Nylander
#26 Par Lindholm – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #18 Andreas Johnsson
#8 Jake Muzzin – #44 Morgan Rielly
#51 Jake Gardiner – #22 Nikita Zaitsev
#23 Travis Dermott – #2 Ron Hainsey
#31 Frederik Andersen
#40 Garret Sparks
Scratched: Justin Holl, Igor Ozhiganov, Tyler Ennis
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#92 Jonathan Drouin – #24 Philip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#90 Tomas Tatar – #13 Max Domi – #65 Andrew Shaw
#62 Artturi Lehkonen – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #40 Joel Armia
#54 Charles Hudon – #42 Michael Chaput – #20 Nicolas Deslauriers
#53 Victor Mete – #6 Shea Weber
#28 Mike Reilly – #26 Jeff Petry
#17 Brett Kulak – #8 Jordie Benn
#31 Carey Price
#37 Antti Niemi
Injured: Paul Byron