For the first time since 1979, we’ve officially got ourselves a Leafs vs. Habs playoff matchup (start date TBD).
It’s a shame that there won’t be fans in the Scotiabank Arena and Bell Centre (or gathering at all) for this, but this has been so long coming, we’ll all take it — no questions asked.
You could fairly argue that Toronto will enter this playoff series as clear favourites for the first time in the Auston Matthews era. While some may suggest they were favourites against Columbus, the standings didn’t support that notion — the two teams were tied with 81 points in 70 games. Although the Leafs held the tiebreaker on ROW and the perception was that they were the more talented team (with a good record post-coaching change), it was a stretch to call them anything more than marginal favourites in the play-in.
This time, the Leafs are 18 points clear of the Habs (with a game in hand) in a 56-game season. It seems safe to say that how the Leafs handle those expectations as a clear favourite is as much of a hurdle as the opposing team standing between them and the second round.
The Leafs finished 7-2-1 in the season series with a 53% control of expected goals and 54% of high-danger chances at 5v5 (note: A tired Montreal team did play a rested Leafs team once — a 5-2 win for Toronto last week — but other than that, there were no second halves of a back-to-back factoring in).
Generally a good 5v5 possession team, the Habs did edge out the shots and shots attempt battle very slightly over the 10 games (~51/49), but they were not able to generate high-quality chances at nearly the same rate as the Leafs, either in the context of the season series or in the season at large.
The Leafs also come ahead of or basically on par with the Habs in many significant defensive categories — ahead in expected Goals Against per 60 and high-danger chances against/60, with only a marginal edge to Montreal in shot attempts against/60, shots against/60, and scoring chances against/60 — in addition to superior goaltending (.907 for the Leafs in all situations versus .897 for Montreal).
In the season series, the Leafs scored on 12% of their shots and the Habs on just 8% of theirs, with the Leafs sporting a .912 save percentage and the Habs a .879. Overall, the Leafs outscored Montreal 35-25.
While it’s an area of concern for the Leafs heading into the playoffs, Toronto also held an edge on both sides of special teams in the season series — the Leafs converted over 22% of their power play opportunities and killed 81.8% of their penalties (18.2 and 77.8, respectively, for Montreal).
Health is a particularly notable factor, even more than usual heading into the playoffs, with the likes of Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher not expected to feature in the Habs’ final regular-season game prior to Game 1. Shea Weber has also missed time with a foot injury, although he’ll more than likely dress for Game 1. Just how close to 100% the Habs’ best forward, goaltender, and defenseman are is obviously critical to how competitive they could make this series — not to mention, their best 200-foot center in Phillip Danault is currently considered day-to-day with a concussion.
Price managed to turn back the clock against the Penguins last summer in the play-in series, but he has since followed that up with an underwhelming 2020-21 season (.901, slightly eclipsed by Jake Allen’s .907), and he has not matched up against the Leafs very well in recent seasons, including a woeful .874 save percentage against Toronto this season.
A healthy Gallagher and Danault would give the Habs’ top line (with Tomas Tatar rounding it out) a lot more matchup credibility against the Matthews line, although we didn’t see a particularly large sample of it in the season series — Matthews and Marner saw 28 5v5 minutes against both Gallagher and Danault, outscoring them 1-0 while losing the shot-attempt share 57/43. Isolating just Shea Weber’s ice time versus the Leafs’ big duo, the Habs carried shot attempts by a tally of 54-45 in those 60 minutes at 5v5, but the Leafs outscored Montreal 4-0.
Stylistically, the Habs are going to look to follow the same playbook Columbus did last summer with the goal of keeping these games as low-event and low-scoring as possible — jamming up the neutral zone and shooting lanes, packing the house, balancing the ice time of their four lines to keep their pace and energy levels high, praying for great goaltending, and hoping to get into the Leafs’ heads by frustrating them early on in the series. This Montreal team may well have not been a playoff team in the Atlantic Division in an average season, but they will no doubt look to play up the underdog angle as much as possible in terms of their mentality entering the series against a Leafs team facing great expectations this Spring.
On the Leafs’ side of things, paranoia about another first-round exit won’t be minimized by the magnitude of this rivalry, but if you’re looking at it optimistically, what better opponent could there be for the Leafs to get over the playoff hump for the first time since 2004?
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