Five days after the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s finally here: Game 1 of the first Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens playoff series in over 40 years (7:30 p.m. EST, CBC & Sportsnet).
It has been quite a long time since the Leafs were considered the heavy favourite in a playoff series. The Leafs were the higher seed in many of their late-90s and early-2000s playoff series, but they were never this heavy of a favourite on paper. You have to go all the way back to the 1993-94 season to find the last time they earned a significant first-round matchup advantage in round one — Toronto finished 43-29-12 (.583 pts%) and beat the 39-36-9 (518 pts%) Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
Comparatively, this year’s first-round series should be a bigger mismatch. The Leafs finished with a points-percentage of .688% to the Habs .527% and finished 18 points ahead of them in the standings (In ’94, there was only an 11-point difference between the Leafs and Blackhawks in a full 82 games).
That said, I don’t expect many in Leafs Nation who weren’t born yesterday to be feeling anything but anxious entering a playoff series.
The biggest reason for Montreal to believe they have a real chance in this series is the return of Brendan Gallagher and the subsequent reuniting of their top-line. While Dominique Ducharme’s reign as head coach has had the Habs looking like a different team at 5v5 (for the worse, by many key indicators), Tatar-Danault-Gallagher is still one of the best possession lines in the NHL and it’s capable of controlling the run of play and nullifying the top offensive talent on the other team. This season, the Danault line finished with close to a 70% xG rating — their best output ever as a line after finishing above 60% every previous year they’ve played together.
That said, the Leafs are in the enviable position of knowing that if their best players play like their best players, they’re simply the better team. When you have the best goal scorer in hockey and one of the league’s best playmakers on his wing — both of whom are now fully trustworthy as 200-foot players — it means you don’t have to be in a defensive posture matchup-wise entering the series. Visible in his quotes below, Keefe is going to get Matthews and Marner on the ice in the offensive situations as much as he can regardless of matchup. The Riley Nash line gives him is an option to spot in for defensive zone starts against the Habs’ top six lines, allowing him the freedom to do so.
Whether the Leafs are sacrificing too much in the way of depth scoring by scratching Pierre Engvall and Alex Galchenyuk in order to build this Nash-centered shutdown line remains to be seen, but the design is that the Leafs’ top-six is well situated to win their matchups more nights than not in this series and the all-vets fourth-line (Thornton – Spezza – Simmonds) can chip in a little bit of offense in its sheltered minutes. Keefe does have plenty of options at his disposal to adapt if the early results aren’t how he’s drawn it up.
Goaltending will be the biggest x-factor in this series, just as it would be in any other. There is perhaps no player in these playoffs with a murkier outlook than Carey Price. His run in last year’s playoffs showed an ability to harness the Price of old, but his regular-season results have been too poor for too long to ignore that there has been a significant decline in his overall play, and he’s now coming off of an injury. We’ve all seen the videos of Price breaking sticks in practice this week — he doesn’t appear to be in a fantastic place with his game at the moment, but we’ll only really know when the rubber hits the road at game time.
For the Leafs, in the end, there was no goalie debate entering this game. Jack Campbell began his Leafs’ career with a feel-good run in the latter part of last season, following it up with a historic 11-game win streak to begin his season in 2021. Finishing with a 17-3-2 record overall, Campbell was 14th among all goalies with >300 minutes in save-percentage at .919. Going by a more advanced metric, Campbell finished the season with 4.7 GSAx — 12th among all goalies — while Price finished 50th among 70 goalies with a -8.1 rating.
With the return of Zach Bogosian, Zach Hyman, and Riley Nash, both teams have full lineups (outside of Jonathan Drouin’s personal leave) entering this series. May the best team win.
Game Day Quote
Sheldon Keefe on how much of a factor matchups will play given his team has last change tonight:
It’s a factor for sure. I don’t know that it’s a huge factor in this series with the way the lines and things match up in terms of last change and all of that. If you have the choice, you’re obviously going to give yourself that opportunity, but we’re here in our building and in our room and just excited to play.
Keefe on if he wants to avoid a Danault vs. Matthews matchup:
First of all, I don’t feel the need to protect Auston from anybody. He and Mitch need to take on the most difficult matchups. That’s important for our team, especially when you look at [the Danault line]. That’s about as good a line as there is in the league.
We need to respect that line as well. Matthews, Marner, and Hyman — those are three players that really like to take on those matchups and they’ve found a way to succeed [in them].
We’re always going to look to get out offensive people in favourable positions on the ice, but there’s too many important faceoffs and too many things that happen throughout the game to try to get away from [a matchup].
No matter who they’re playing against, all four lines have to be comfortable playing against anybody, and I think that’s something we’ll see through this series. I’m not going to be hiding our best people from anyone.
Keefe on how he settled on a lineup for Game #1:
I just really like the way that the lines shake out. The mix of skill and scoring and experience — players that fit into a role, both at even strength and on special teams. I think it’s a real good mix for us to begin with.
Some tough decisions there, of course. We’re sitting some very good players that have great assets that will help us through these playoffs, but this is our group for game one. The guys are excited to get going together.
John Tavares on the extra preparation for game one and how the team is feeling entering the series:
No question everyone is excited. We’ve had a lot of fo time to rest and warm up, so I’m sure there’s a lot of energy, a lot of emotion. [We need] to come in with a good mindset, understanding the way we need to play, and controlling those emotions. The group is just excited — we’ve worked hard for this opportunity and to get this far in the season.
Playoff hockey in the NHL — there’s nothing quite like it. We’ve had a good week here to prepare and [be reminded] of what that’s like year in and year out. We’re excited to be a part of that — this is the best time of year to play and have this opportunity. We obviously want to go out there and make the most of it, play our game and get off on the right foot tonight.
Tavares on whether he feels the pressure to make a deep run this season:
Well, I want to make a run regardless of if there’s pressure or not. We want to compete for the Stanley Cup. We’ve got an opportunity to do that. We’ve done a great job this season so far to put ourselves in this position, and we want to make the most of it. Usually, when there’s pressure it means you’ve got a great opportunity to do something special — that’s something that’s very hard to do.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#71 Nick Foligno – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #20 Riley Nash – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#97 Joe Thornton – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 T.J Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #22 Zach Bogosian
#36 Jack Campbell (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Marner – Thornton – Matthews
Nylander – Tavares – Spezza
Extras/Taxi: David Rittich, Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Alex Galchenyuk, Denis Malgin, Ben Hutton, Travis Dermott, Martin Marincin
Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #24 Phillip Danault – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#73 Tyler Toffoli – #14 Nick Suzuki – #40 Joel Armia
#94 Corey Perry – #21 Eric Staal – #17 Josh Anderson
#41 Paul Byron – #71 Jake Evans – #62 Artturi Lehkonen
#44 Joel Edmundson – #26 Jeff Petry
#77 Brett Kulak – #8 Ben Chiarot
#28 Jon Merrill – #6 Shea Weber
#31 Carey Price (starter)
#34 Jake Allen
Toffoli – Gallagher – Suzuki
Armia – Anderson – Tatar
Extras/Taxi: Cayden Primeau, Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Micheal Folik, Alexander Romanov, Erik Gustafsson, Xavier Ouellet
Injured/Out: Jonathan Drouin