The MLHS crew nailed its North Division regular-season predictions. Brimming with overconfidence, it’s time to put our necks on the line with some Leafs vs. Habs playoff series predictions.
Alec Brownscombe: Leafs in 5
All of the key indicators suggest this Leafs team is different from past years — more balanced, consistent, well-rounded, and capable of winning low-scoring games if needed. Even if you aren’t interested in all of the intangible talk (re: the team’s culture, leadership, and urgency to win), how about this stat: Toronto was top five in expected Goals Against per 60 adjusting for score this season.
Do they rank so high in that metric in an average schedule with normal divisions? Probably not, but there are a few good offensive teams in the North, and chalking it up entirely to quality of competition is, to me, a lazy dismissal of a notable improvement in the Leafs’ game in regards to their commitment and structure defensively, as well as their improved personnel on the blue line.
The best case that could be made for this as a toss-up series is that Murphy’s Law will curse Toronto in the playoffs, even in the areas where they were clearly superior this season, such as in net. That’s always possible in a seven-game series in a sport as chaotic as hockey, but you’d need to conjure up nightmare scenarios based entirely on superstition/paranoia detached from the regular-season indicators, be it Price or Allen getting red hot and Campbell going ice cold at the same time, major injuries factoring in, and/or the Leafs shooting sub-2% at 5v5 (a real stat from last season’s Columbus series) — the kinds of “what ifs” that could swing any series between any two teams in the NHL playoffs.
In other words, a lot would have to suddenly go wrong simultaneously. The Leafs edge the Habs on star power and in almost all of the major defensive and offensive metrics that account for shot quality. They finished 18 points ahead in the standings with a goal difference 48 goals clear of the Habs in just 56 games.
If the Habs are able to take liberties with the Leafs at 5v5 in order to slow down their skill and Toronto can’t properly punish them on the power play — and even worse, if they are so bad on the man advantage that it actually hurts their own momentum regularly within games — it could get a little interesting, but I don’t see enough on the Habs’ side to match up with Toronto. Led by a matured and relentless Auston Matthews, the Leafs’ young core looks steelier and more ready to win, and the team is better built — in terms of its overall mix and defensive foundation — to persevere through a physical, tight-checking grind.
I fully recognize the past traumas and appreciate that it’s a healthy approach to avoid overconfidence like the plague if you’re a Leafs fan. But looking at it objectively as someone forced to predict the outcome, I have a hard time seeing how the Habs get more than one game off of the Leafs in this one, and I certainly don’t see them winning four out of seven.
Josh Simpson: Leafs in 6
On paper, Toronto pretty clearly outclasses Montreal in any way you slice it.
The Leafs finished first in the North division, while the Habs finished fourth. The Leafs also had more wins, more points, more goals per game, more expected goals per game, fewer goals against per game, and fewer expected goals per game — all while playing in the same division against the same competition. The Leafs also took the regular-season series handily, going 7-2-1 in 10 games against Montreal.
On the ice, I think Montreal has some pretty exploitable weaknesses. Their D core really struggles to move pucks with control, and they employ some pretty old-school tactics in the offensive zone that result in a lot of low-danger point shots. They can keep the puck in the offensive zone playing a shoot-and-retrieve style, but they struggle to generate quality looks unless they’re getting rush chances.
On the other hand, the Leafs have really rounded out their game this season, becoming a lot harder for teams to match up against. They still have that game-breaking talent at the top of their lineup and continue to play a creative, possession-oriented style with an emphasis on moving pucks while in motion, but they’ve diversified their lineup. They’re more physical, they seem to win more battles, they are more responsible in their own end, and they defend pretty well in transition.
I think the only way Montreal has a shot in this series is Carey Price plays very well and Jack Campbell (and potentially Frederik Andersen) play very poorly. I know people will argue that Price has had a much better career than Campbell and that Campbell doesn’t have any playoff experience, but by every statistical measure, Campbell’s severely outplayed Price all season. This series should be fun, physical, and competitive, but I think Toronto is just too good to lose in the first round again, especially to this Canadiens team.
Hudson Scott: Leafs in 6
While it’s hard to ignore that this isn’t the perfect opportunity for the Leafs to beat the Habs in dramatic fashion for Toronto’s first series win since 2004, it’s also hard not to see traits in this Montreal team that could see them take over parts of games and cause Toronto more trouble than a typical bottom seed might.
That, and my perpetual anxiety and experience with disappointment as a Leaf fan, leads to my somewhat safe bet of a 4-2 series win for Toronto. That said, the Leafs have an almost across-the-board statistical advantage, especially considering Montreal’s trend in the latter part of the season. I’m not just talking about the last few weeks, either – the Habs were a much different team overall than in the first half of the season under Claude Julien, going from top-three in most shot-based metrics to around 10-15th in the second half.
I’m expecting a much different Montreal team we saw the last few months, however. With Brendan Gallagher likely back, it means the Habs best asset — the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher trio — will return and restore their forward depth, while Carey Price’s probable return gives them a chance to rekindle what was a great tandem to start the year.
Ultimately, I think this would be a very close series if Toronto hadn’t made the massive strides defensively that they did this season. They are much better equipped to handle a low-scoring game this year. With a much more potent attack than Montreal to top it off, this is Toronto’s series to win. My conclusion is that, while my brain says Leafs in five, my nerves tell me it’ll take one more.
Mark Rackham: Leafs in 4
Toronto dominated the season series against Montreal, is healthy with lots of options available to Sheldon Keefe, and has a confident and in-form goaltender.
If special teams bounce back to just league average, then I don’t envision a situation in which Montreal can cope or attempt to counter Toronto’s overpowering offense once the Buds get ahead in the series.
Kevin Papetti: Leafs in 6
The Leafs certainly carry a major edge in terms of star talent, as Montreal cannot match Toronto’s big four of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander up-front. Unlike last year’s team, the Leafs are now strong defensively as well and are far more capable of winning when they only score two or three in a game.
Jack Campbell was the best goaltender on either team this season, and the Leafs won the division despite their mediocre power play. Simply put, I think the Leafs are the better team, and the Habs don’t carry a major advantage in any area of the game. If Toronto’s power play can get hot, the Canadiens will be in serious trouble.
Anthony Petrielli: Leafs in 6
The Leafs are in the upper echelon of teams in the league, while the Habs technically did not finish in the top 16. In a normal season, it’s fair to wonder if Montreal would have made the playoffs.
That said, they present a number of challenges for the Leafs, particularly due to their shutdown line and overall depth. At the end of the day, though, the Leafs have too much elite talent, and it is now a bit more battle-tested and in its prime. I’m finding it hard to picture the Habs winning four of seven unless something goes off the rails for the Leafs with their goaltending or special teams (which isn’t impossible).
My head is saying Leafs in six, while my heart is saying Leafs in seven because they never do anything the easy way. I’ll stick with my head on this one — Leafs in six.
Gus Katsaros: Leafs in 5
I am giving Montreal the benefit of the doubt that they’ll make the series competitive, but there isn’t a scenario other than injuries to the Leafs’ stars that puts Montreal in the driver seat.
Carey Price and Shea Weber, while still serviceable, aren’t enough to carry a club, and scoring upfront will be difficult. Toronto must weather the inconsistent goaltending and a predictable power play while they rally around a defensive game that is much improved this season and remain deadly in the offensive zone.
I don’t expect blowouts; in fact, games should remain close — even with an overtime or two — but the factors that determine consistent winning patterns are emerging more from the Leafs than the Canadiens.