For the first time since 1979, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs will face off in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
At the beginning of the season, it didn’t look like this matchup would be a possibility for a first-round matchup.
Headed into the year, many were optimistic about what the Canadiens could accomplish. They had just come off a very surprising playoff performance in the NHL playoffs bubble, led by young centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. They also made a number of additions to their roster: Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Joel Edmundson, Corey Perry, and Jake Allen.
GM Marc Bergevin was pleased with his work, dropping the following quote about his club in early January:
"We have a fast team, we have a bigger team,'' said Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin ahead of Wednesday's season opener. "We can play pretty much any way you want."https://t.co/SEKmhweKjS
— Global Montreal (@Global_Montreal) January 13, 2021
The way the Habs started their season did nothing to temper expectations. The Canadiens were on fire out of the gate, and many were convinced that Toronto and Montreal would duke it out all season to determine who would finish in first place atop the NHL’s North Division. If you’re on Twitter, you surely remember the takes:
A shortened season requires us to draw earlier conclusions: The #habs look like a juggernaut.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 3, 2021
Eventually, though, the Habs started to cool down. There was enough of a regression to the mean to be a cause for concern in Montreal, leading Bergevin to fire his head coach.
The problem for them? The Canadiens can’t actually “play any way you want.”
When Montreal was having early season success, they were doing the vast majority of their damage off the rush. Wingers like Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli were scoring a ton of goals this way — especially against the Vancouver Canucks.
They also lead the league in odd-man rushes and goals scored off-the-rush. And they just scored on an odd-man rush. Fast and furious.
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) January 29, 2021
Scoring off the rush is never a bad thing — it’s obviously quite the opposite — but Montreal’s ability to convert on rush chances concealed some concerning flaws that were (and still are) present in Montreal’s game.
When Montreal is not scoring off of rush chances, they are not scoring much at all. At even strength, the team’s approach to creating offense is quite reminiscent of how the Leafs played in their final days under Mike Babcock.
The Habs are relatively stagnant in the offensive zone, creating much of their offense off of rather unthreatening point shots. This graph from HockeyViz.com is evidence of that — look at how often they are shooting from a distance:
The Habs also don’t have much of a power play, finishing with the 19th best power-play percentage in the NHL.
In summary, the Habs don’t generate a whole lot off of the cycle at 5v5, and they don’t score often enough at 5v4. When they’re not getting rush chances, they’re probably not going to score very often. As a result, what will determine how well this series goes for the Toronto Maple Leafs will likely revolve around how effectively they can limit rush chances.
How can they do that? There are two main areas of the game that the Leafs must excel in:
The best way to solve a problem is to prevent one from occurring in the first place. That’s why forechecking well will be imperative to Toronto’ success in this series.
The more the Leafs can impose themselves on the forecheck and force Montreal’s defenders to fail at exits, the less the Canadiens will be able to create rush chances. After all, if you can’t make that first pass to start an odd-man rush, there will be no odd-man rush at all.
Of course, a strong forecheck will also keep Montreal hemmed in their defensive zone, allowing for more Maple Leafs shots and chances — which they convert into goals at a higher clip than the average team.
Marc Bergevin has built a defensive core comprised of defensive-defenders that don’t often exit their zone with control. This was true before the trade deadline and is especially true after it — the club they lost speedy puck-mover Victor Mete to the Ottawa Senators on waivers and acquired defensive D John Merrill from the Red Wings. They did acquire D Erik Gustafsson from the Flyers, who is pretty skilled with the puck and can move it pretty effectively, but he’s hardly played for them and he doesn’t seem like a factor in their playoff plans as of right now.
Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats on Twitter) impressively tracked a variety of micro statistics for all 56 of Montreal’s games this season, and his findings prove this point. Only two Habs blue liners (that are currently on the roster) have moved the puck out of their zone with control more than 50% of the time — the aforementioned Gustafsson, along with Brett Kulak (who has also been scratched at times), are both sitting at 53%. Every other regular Canadiens defender is at 44% or less, with captain Shea Weber at just 35%.
For more interesting statistics regarding the Habs, you can check out Mikael’s work here.
Simply put, the Leafs need to put pressure on Montreal’s defense and force them to make mistakes. This is where the addition of Nick Foligno will really help the Leafs and is undoubtedly why they paid a high price for him instead of using their assets on a player like, say, Taylor Hall. Foligno’s reads, stick, and physicality make him a really effective forechecker, even still at this point in his career:
Toronto's been playing a lot of keep away hockey when they have a lead, so this is where Foligno's gonna help the most. Doesn't create much offense, but the Leafs are probably content with that. pic.twitter.com/nyCrqUOxBG
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) April 11, 2021
Not only will the Leafs need to be able to win puck battles low in the offensive zone, but they will also need to make good decisions up high in the zone. Toronto’s defense must make wise decisions on when to pinch, and their forwards have to be able to identify who is taking the role of F2 and who is taking the role of F3 to ensure that a pinching defender has somebody to cover for him in case the defender loses the puck battle.
I have a feeling that this could play role in why Alex Galchenyuk may be on the outside looking in for Toronto to start the playoffs, and why Nick Foligno remains in the top six. As much as Galchenyuk has been a solid addition overall and has done a good job creating turnovers as F1 on the forecheck, he tends to make poor reads when he isn’t F1. Justin Bourne of Sportsnet wrote a bit more on Galchenyuk and his misreads on the forecheck here.
2. Rush Defense
On the occasions where the Canadiens are able to break out of their zone cleanly, Toronto must be able to defend the rush well — diligently tracking back, playing tight to their check, and forcing Montreal to dump the puck in.
The Muzzin-Holl pair are already pretty strong at this, and I believe that a third pair of Dermott and Sandin will be successful in this regard as well.
Morgan Rielly, for all of his strengths in the offensive zone and in offensive transition, is probably the most likely of the Leafs defenders to make a poor read causing a 2-on-1 against — and he’s also consistently among Toronto’s minute leaders. He still needs to play his aggressive, offensive style to have success as a player — you don’t want to try to make him something he’s not and take away his biggest strengths — but he’ll need to be able to pick his spots well in this series in order to avoid getting burnt.
TJ Brodie is very good at defending 2-on-1s, but it’s still not an ideal situation to be in — and it’s a situation that he has become rather familiar with this season.
Overall, this Leafs team matches up pretty well with Montreal.
My main concern about Toronto right now is probably their power play, but Montreal has that problem, too, and there’s a better chance that the Leafs figure theirs out (given their personnel) than the Habs figure out theirs.
As long as Toronto can limit rush chances — and as is true with every playoff series, as long as they don’t get goalie’d — I like their chances in this series.