The Toronto Maple Leafs have an opportunity to clinch a division title for the first time in 21 years in its final regular-season matchup against the Montreal Canadiens tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, CBC/Sportsnet).
The last time this franchise clinched a division title, it was the year 2000, when a 100-point Leafs season was led by Mats Sundin, Steve Thomas, Jonas Hoglund, Igor Korolev, and Yanic Perreault in points scoring. The Y2K scare had just passed, George Bush was soon to steal the 2000 election, Destiny Child’s “Say My Name” and N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” were the current chart toppers, and the first X Men movie and Mission Impossible II were about to hit the big screen as the summer blockbuster films. Big Brother and Survivor were soon to debut their premiere seasons on television.
In the context of this season’s unique playoff format — which pits the four playoff-qualiifed divisional oppponents against one another for the first two rounds of the postseason — the winner of the regular-season title may be somewhat academic knowing the North Division team that advances to the Conference Final will be remembered as the true division champion.
In the wider view of franchise history, though, whether it’s accomplished tonight (via a Leafs win or OTL and/or an Oilers loss or OTL) or a few days later, this will be a meaningful accomplishment by the Leafs worthy of celebration by the fan base.
Accomplishing it against the Canadiens tonight would make it all the sweeter, and it shouldn’t be lost on the players that an HNIC clinch against Les Habitants is worthy of extra style points. Acknowledging the growing possibility of a Leafs-Habs round-one matchup, Sheldon Keefe told his players in the most recent Leaf Blueprint episode, “Let’s put doubt in their minds.” The Leafs can make it seven wins in the 10-game season series with a victory tonight.
In terms of lineup notes, the Canadiens will be down another critical member of their roster tonight in Phillip Danault, who is considered day-to-day with a concussion. He’ll join Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber, and Carey Price on the injured list, while Jonathan Drouin is on a leave of absence.
Here is the latest rundown of the Habs’ injury situations ahead of the playoffs:
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 7, 2021
The Danault injury means Jesperi Kotkaniemi will center Josh Anderson and Tomas Tatar tonight, with the buzz in the Montreal media of late indicating that these final few games may be Kotkaniemi’s last-gasp opportunity to prove he should be among the top 12 in the opening playoff lineup. The former third-overall pick, drafted one place ahead of Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk in 2018, is without a goal in 21 games, has one assist in his last 16, and is a -7 in his last 11.
On the Leafs’ side of things, they will shuffle in Ben Hutton for his second game as a Leaf in place of Rasmus Sandin, and Adam Brooks will re-enter the lineup in place of Stefan Noesen. While he is keeping some of his depth options game ready, Sheldon Keefe has indicated he will not be too aggressive about the resting of his core players in the final three games, citing the argument that he would prefer to avoid a big gap in game action for his top talent between now and the start of the playoffs.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the team’s consistency level this season:
Where we have remained consistent is that the commitment defensively has been there. Along those lines, there is a comfort in defending leads and playing with the leads. Not every game has gone the way we want it to. At times, we have slipped a little bit and given up leads, but for the most part, it has been done with a good process.
There has been a bad break here or there but not because we are cheating the game or we are not responsible. Our confidence in playing in those types of games and understanding the importance of closing out those games — I think that has been really important for us and it’s where I have seen the growth.
The other part of it just how our team has come together — the players themselves, and how they have grown with their comfort with one another. We had a number of changes from last season, and the team, right from training camp, you could tell was going to have a great chemistry. It has just continued to grow and evolve over the course of the season.
We have brought in some new personalities after the trade deadline. I just think things have come together really nicely there.
Keefe on the keys Mitch Marner’s successful season:
Just consistency. Every game, he has been an offensive threat and a difference-maker there, and then with the intangibles on the other side of the puck, he has just been very consistent.
He is at or near the top of our team in ice time among forwards virtually every night. He has just been there every game. He has been confident.
We have talked a lot about the chemistry between him and Auston, but no matter who we have had with him, his game has been sharp in all regards.
Alex Kerfoot on Sheldon Keefe’s qualities as a coach:
He is able to communicate with people very well on a personal level and through the team. Guys respond to him. Some of the things he does are pretty innovative. He is always looking ways to improve his coaching expertise. He is always trying to find ways to help our team. That kind of resonates throughout our group.
He works very hard at his craft. The guys respond to him. That is big — having a team that wants to play for the coach. We definitely want to play for him.
Kerfoot on the innovative ideas Keefe puts into practice:
Just different puck possession things. You see it in our game. A lot of hockey that I have played in the past has always had a certain approach to it. Some of the things that he preaches and wants to do — keeping the puck through the neutral zone, not just giving away free pucks at the end of shifts, maintaining possession.
There are certain faceoffs things we’ll try at times that I have never seen before. I am sure he is not the only coach in the league doing it, but I have noticed it more with him than I have maybe in the past.
TJ Brodie on Ben Hutton’s first game:
I thought he was really good. The plays he was making, the poise with the puck, the breakouts — it just makes the whole game that much easier when you can break out clean and make those plays. I was impressed.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#97 Joe Thornton – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#12 Alex Galchenyuk – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #65 Ilya Mikheyev
#24 Wayne Simmonds – #77 Adam Brooks – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Ben Hutton – #23 Travis Dermott
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#33 David Rittich
Extras/Taxi: Rasmus Sandin, Stefan Noesen, Michael Hutchinson, Timothy Liljegren
Injured: Riley Nash, Zach Hyman, Zach Bogosian, Nick Foligno
AHL Conditioning Stint: Frederik Andersen
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #15 Jesperi Kotkaniemi – #17 Josh Anderson
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #14 Nick Suzuki – #40 Joel Armia
#94 Corey Perry – #21 Eric Staal – #22 Cole Caufield
#62 Artturi Lehkone – #71 Jake Evans – #60 Alex Belzile
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#77 Brett Kulak – #8 Ben Chiarot
#27 Alexander Romanov – #28 Jon Merrill
#34 Jake Allen (starter)
#30 Cayden Primeau
Injured: Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Carey Price, Shea Weber