With the odds of a Leafs-Habs first-round matchup currently hovering a little below 80%, this week’s three-game series could be a preview (of sorts) of potentially the first Toronto-Montreal playoff matchup since 1979 (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario/TSN2).
However, as it pertains to these final regular-season matchups, the respective lineup situations and game stakes are quite different for the two rivals.
The first-place Leafs, while they’re missing Zach Hyman, Zach Bogosian, and Justin Holl (day-to-day), are looking to finalize, at most, a couple of positions on their playoff roster while hoping to get healthy without losing anyone else before the regular season ends.
Montreal, on the other hand, has a chance to take advantage of Winnipeg’s five-game losing streak and leapfrog the Jets into third in the division, giving themselves what they would (or should) consider an easier first-round matchup.
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The challenge for Montreal is that they will still be without Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin for the foreseeable future. Captain Shea Weber has now missed two straight games, while Carey Price and Tomas Tatar are also working their way back from minor injuries.
As a result, the Habs have had to lean on their supporting cast more than usual. Their top forwards — Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, and Philip Danault — haven’t seen major boosts in ice time with their team so shorthanded, but Artturi Lehkonen, Jake Evans, Paul Byron, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi have all stepped into bigger roles.
On defense, Shea Weber’s absence has created a lot of moving pieces. Both Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot are playing bigger minutes since Weber has been out, while rookie Alexander Romanov has moved to the top pair and has played over 21.5 minutes in his last two games (compared to around 17 minutes a night previously). Brett Kulak received his first game action since April 19th on Saturday, playing around 15 minutes alongside Jon Merrill, which appears to be the Canadiens’ third defense pair for tonight.
On the Leafs‘ side of things, Justin Holl, recovering from a minor injury after taking a puck to the face on Saturday, stayed behind in Toronto. That means a second opportunity for Timothy Liljegren to make an impression and get some reps to prepare in case he’s needed in the playoffs. Liljegren will pair with Jake Muzzin while Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin remain an item on the bottom pair.
The starting goaltenders will be the same as they were for last Wednesday’s Leafs-Habs matchup: Jake Allen — 10-10-4 on the season with a .909 save percentage — will start for Montreal, while Jack Campbell — 15-2-1 with a .927 Sv% — will start for Toronto.
Maple Leafs first-round matchup odds from hockeyviz.com:
Game Day Quotes
Nick Foligno on observing Auston Matthews’ since he joined the team:
He works at [his game] — that’s something I’ve always been impressed with. The elite players in this league — Auston being one of them — are working on their craft constantly. You watch him and how he prepares for games, how he prepares for practice, the skill work that he does, the type of guy he is in the room — he has this aura around him where you can tell he expects greatness out of himself.
It’s fun to be around people like that. It’s neat to watch. Even as an older player, you appreciate guys who are good at their craft. Auston takes it very serious. He has a ton of fun. He’s a great guy.
It’s so neat to see him — it’s a few years past when I met him as an 18-year-old kid who hadn’t drafted yet — how he’s matured as a man. To see his abilities, who he is in this league, and he’s still learning… It’s been really fun to be around him.
[I’m] just trying to just gain that chemistry together but also respect what he’s done here in this league and how he’s commanded this room.
Foligno on how he’s become so comfortable early on with his new teammates:
I must be a good actor because the last few days I feel like I’ve screwed up — in warmups and everything else. It’s a credit to the guys for making me feel that way. I think without having them make the extra effort to make me feel welcome and a part of this early on, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way.
I also know who I am and I’m comfortable with what I can bring. I’m just trying to [bring those things] and slowly work my way into it. Every day, I’m getting more comfortable with the room, the training staff, the coaches, the system, but also knowing that there are some attributes I can bring that’ll help move that along.
As my game start gets more comfortable, more stuff will come out, but it’s the work habits — the way you infiltrate the room — that is so important.
I’ve seen guys come into my room when I was in Columbus, so I’m trying to just be that guy for this team and I’m just excited about the opportunity. That always kind of rubs off. When you know how fortunate you are to be in this position and have an opportunity to work with a great team and chase something great, that can be infectious.
I’m just trying to do that for these guys and give them the brand of hockey that they expect.
Sheldon Keefe on what he’s looking for from this series in terms of playoff preparation:
We’re not really looking beyond the fact that it’s a three-game set here for us, which is not unlike what we’ve faced many times this season. That itself has a playoff feel in terms of focusing on one opponent and adjustments from [game-to-game].
I know they’ve got Ottawa in between, but for us, it’s three straight. That’s really what I’m focused o — just this week here, starting with tonight.
Keefe on if the team’s veteran presence is a big boost going into the playoffs:
I think so. I think that’s a great thing for the group. Having guys who’ve won the cup of course is great. Jake Muzzin’s perspective and approach that comes through experience is important. Zach Bogosian came in [with] confidence and experience having gone through it with Tampa.
Those little things like that are important, but I think there’s also something to be said of those who have been pushing for it and have been in the league a long time. The love of the game and the love of competition and the desire to win is what continues to drive them. I think that’s a big part of it.
We’ve got lots of different elements on our team and lots of different reasons to be motivated, but I think those guys come to to the rink every day because they love the game, they love to compete, and they want a chance to win the Cup.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#71 Nick Foligno – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#97 Joe Thornton – #77 Adam Brooks – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#33 David Rittich
Extras/Taxi: Ben Hutton, Pierre Engvall, Michael Hutchinson, Teemu Kivihalme, Stefan Noesen
Injured: Frederik Andersen, Riley Nash, Zach Hyman, Zach Bogosian, Justin Holl
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #24 Philip Danault – #17 Josh Anderson
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #14 Nick Suzuki – #40 Joel Armia
#62 Artturi Lehkonen – #71 Jake Evans – #22 Cole Caufield
#67 Michael Frolik – #21 Eric Staal – #94 Corey Perry
#27 Alexander Romanov – #8 Ben Chiarot
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#77 Brett Kulak – #28 Jon Merrill
#34 Jake Allen (starter)
#30 Cayden Primeau
Injured: Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Carey Price, Shea Weber, Tomas Tatar