It’s been a turbulent road to the postseason for the Montreal Canadiens, but what matters is they’re here now. Now they get a fresh slate just like everyone else.
Even better, they have a chance to send the Toronto Maple Leafs into an organizational crisis.
Yes, it took 42 years and a pandemic that forced all the Canadian teams into one division where they could only play each other, but it’s finally happening. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs are facing each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1979.
The Maple Leafs are heavy favourites — they went 7-2-1 against the Canadiens this season and finished 18 points ahead of them in the standings — but don’t worry, Habs fans. There are still reasons to have hope.
To get you ready for this series, we’re going to give you six of them today.
1. Toronto’s ghosts
As legendary mathematician Wayne Gretzky once said, “Ninety percent of hockey is mental and the other half is physical.”
If you believe that, well, then the Maple Leafs still have a pretty big mental hurdle they have to get over.
If you count last year’s qualifying round, Toronto has now been to the playoffs in five straight years but hasn’t won a series yet. After getting eliminated by the Columbus Blue Jackets last year, Auston Matthews called the Leafs’ repeated postseason failures “embarrassing.”
Auston Matthews on how #Leafs must improve to take the next step: "A lot of it is mindset. We have to figure out playoffs, and how to get out of the first round. I think four years [of losing], obviously it's pretty frustrating and a little bit embarrassing as well."
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) August 12, 2020
And that’s just what’s happened with this Leafs core. As the players are well aware, the franchise’s postseason baggage goes back a lot further than that. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004, which is the second-longest active drought in the NHL behind only the Florida Panthers.
And, as you may have heard, they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967.
Also, did you know it was 4-1?
The Maple Leafs certainly are also well aware of what the reaction is going to be like if they once again fail to win so much as a single playoff series. The talk that this core, as talented as it may be, just doesn’t have what it takes to get it done in the playoffs will only get louder.
2. The Habs literally just did this
It doesn’t seem like too many people think the Canadiens are going to win this series.
I’m not surprised everyone chose the Leafs. I’m surprised I’m the only one who has them winning in 7.
I suspect we’re not the only ones the Canadiens will have to prove wrong.
I will say, I won’t be remotely surprised if the Canadiens win. pic.twitter.com/MxR8ltK05g
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) May 15, 2021
If this seems familiar, it should.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) July 28, 2020
Nobody thought the Habs stood a chance in their best-of-five qualifying round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last year, a series they ended up winning with a game to spare.
The Canadiens can take that same “us against the world” mentality into this series while also taking confidence from the fact they already shocked the world once last summer.
3. Count the rings
Not everyone on this year’s Canadiens team was there for the bubble last year, but many of them have plenty of their own postseason experiences to draw from.
Since the offseason the Habs have brought in six players — Tyler Toffoli, Corey Perry, Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen, Michael Frolik, and Eric Staal — that have Stanley Cup rings. As for the Leafs, they only have two players who’ve won a Cup: Jake Muzzin and Zach Bogosian, the latter of whom is injured.
4. Possession metrics
Maybe you don’t think things like experience or Cup rings are all that important. Maybe you don’t even think the Leafs’ playoff demons matter all that much. Fine. Then how about we get into an area where Montreal actually had an edge over Toronto this year?
At five-on-five, the Habs had the second-highest percentage of shot attempts in the league behind only the Colorado Avalanche. The Leafs ranked 11th.
That isn’t everything, of course, and it’s not an accident that Toronto scored way more than Montreal did. The Maple Leafs ranked second in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) while the Canadiens ranked 10th. In other words, the Habs may have had the puck more, but the Leafs generated higher quality scoring opportunities and did a better job of finishing theirs.
Possession metrics have been a predictor of postseason success for teams in the past, though.
This doesn’t have to be an edge for the Habs, and if it isn’t, they’ll almost certainly lose. But it’s definitely an intriguing X-factor in this series.
Jack Campbell has had a great year in net for Toronto, going 17-3-2 with a .921 save percentage and 2.15 goals against average. Carey Price’s numbers weren’t as good, going 12-7-5 with a .901 save percentage and 2.64 goals against average in 25 starts. Price also hasn’t played since suffering a concussion on April 19, but he’s expected to return for Game 1 on Thursday.
While Campbell’s played well this year, the 29-year-old only became a No. 1 goalie for the first time in his career in the middle of this season and has never played in the playoffs before.
Price certainly has the much more impressive resume, and while it’s been a few years now since we’ve really seen the 33-year-old netminder play at a consistently elite level, he was vintage Price in the bubble last year. He had a .936 save percentage, 1.78 goals against average, and two shutouts in 10 postseason games against the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
If a well-rested Price can again come back from a lot of time off to play like that, he has a chance to turn this series on its head.
6. Health and depth
Price isn’t the only key member of the Habs expected to return for this series.
Brendan Gallagher (out since April 5), Shea Weber (April 28), and Phillip Danault (May 6) are all expected to be back in the lineup for Game 1, too. Aside from Jonathan Drouin, who remains away from the team for undisclosed reasons and is not expected to return this season, the Habs are heading into the playoffs at full strength, something they haven’t been for a while.
However, while the team getting healthy is a good thing, it may end up not leaving room in the lineup for dynamic rookie forward Cole Caufield. Dominique Ducharme’s lines at Saturday’s practice caused a bit of a stir amongst Habs fans, mostly because Caufield was skating on the extra line and Ducharme wouldn’t commit to playing him in Game 1.
Tatar – Danault – Gallagher
Toffoli – Suzuki – Armia
Perry – Staal – Anderson
Byron – Evans – Lehkonen
Frolik – Kotkaniemi – Caufield
Edmundson – Petry
Kulak – Chiarot
Romanov – Gustafsson
— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) May 15, 2021
Reporter: "Caufield has been scoring goals, something the team needs"
Ducharme : "we need experience. "
Fire him. Right now. Unacceptable.#GoHabsGo
— Hadi K. Scouting (@HadiK_Scouting) May 15, 2021
On Tuesday, Ducharme confirmed Caufield will be watching Game 1 from the press box.
Ducharme confirmed that Kotkaniemi and Caufield will be watching Game 1. But he also expects he'll be using them at some point, and that they'll be more prepared to play when they do finally get in.
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) May 18, 2021
If the Canadiens lose Game 1 without Caufield, especially if they struggle to generate offence, fans’ cries for him to be inserted back into the lineup will only intensify. Even if he doesn’t play at the start, his presence on the roster should put pressure on the rest of the team, with everyone knowing that he’s ready to take one of their spots if they don’t perform.