As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs undergo a staggered start, a stellar first-round matchup of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens is the last to get underway. This stands as their first meeting in the playoffs since 1979. It should be a glorious clash of Canadian hockey titans that’ll result in some great hockey.
A few storylines should dominate and influence the outcome of this Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens series. The health of both team’s goaltending, Montreal’s offensive touch (or lack of), and the ability of the Maple Leafs’ superstars to convert on the scoresheet will decide which team moves on.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens
There’s been a sort of controversy around the goaltending situation of both teams for the entire season. From the Leafs’ perspective, all of it stemmed from Frederik Andersen‘s poor play and subsequent injury. It was mostly quelled by Jack Campbell‘s regular-season performance. After overcoming an injury of his own, Campbell burst out as Toronto’s uncontested starter with a 17-3-2 record paired with a .921 save percentage.
Sheldon Keefe confirmed that Campbell will be starting Game 1, and by regular season stats, that gives the Leafs the goaltending edge now. Frederik Andersen’s returned and he’ll be the backup. However, both his brief AHL and NHL stints since recovering from injury haven’t impressed. The remaining concern surrounding Toronto is Campbell’s inexperience. He’s never seen playoff ice at the NHL level. He’s also not played a playoff game at any level since 2016-17 with the AHL’s Ontario Reign. Campbell’s been a great goalie this year, but the playoffs are a different animal.
Montreal’s had some concerns of their own. Carey Price appeared with the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Monday after missing around a month due to concussion issues. Price didn’t have a terrible regular season, but he wasn’t spectacular either. He finished the season with just a .901 save percentage. It’s nearly a career-worst mark for him and makes him a pretty average starter among the league’s goalies this season. Jake Allen largely outplayed him through the course of the season, but even his play faltered down the stretch, finishing the year with just a .907 save percentage. Price’s ability to turn it on in the playoffs can’t be underestimated. He has the ability to transform this series. As things stand, however, the Leafs roll in with the hotter goalie.
Montreal’s Scoring Ability
The Canadiens limped into the playoffs, losing their last five games. They didn’t score more than three goals in any of those contests, and the two three-goal efforts they put together were both 4-3 overtime losses to the Edmonton Oilers. Many of their scoring leaders also had poor ends to the season. Tyler Toffoli, the team’s only 20-goal scorer, only tallied one in his last five games. Josh Anderson, their second-leading goalscorer, hasn’t registered a point since April 21st. And with the news that they likely won’t be getting Jonathan Drouin back for the playoffs at all, they could be struggling to get goals against an improved Toronto defence.
One guy who had been heating up is rookie Cole Caufield. He’d scored four goals in his first 10 NHL games. His speed was a refresher for the Habs’ bottom six. However, with Caufield practicing out of Montreal’s top 12 forwards, he may be a healthy scratch to start the playoffs. While coach Dominique Ducharme is favouring more experienced forwards like Joel Armia and Paul Byron in the lineup, Caufield’s scoring touch could be missed early in the series. Montreal’s goaltending may not be strong enough to limit Toronto’s offence, so Montreal needs as many goals as they can to stay in this series. Based on the end of the season, that could be a big question mark.
Concern still remains surrounding the ability of Toronto’s core four to be playoff performers.
Despite performing at well over a point-per-game average over his regular-season career, Auston Matthews only has 19 points in 25 career playoff games. The situations are similar for the rest of their stars. Mitch Marner‘s performed slightly better with 21 points in 25 games. William Nylander has 15 in 25. In a Toronto uniform, captain John Tavares has eight points in 12 games.
Their ability to break through the Habs’ defence and solve Carey Price will prove to be crucial in the Leafs winning this series. There’s no argument against how well this group of four have played this season. Matthews’ Rocket Richard Trophy win is the cherry on top. Their performance can be spurned by veteran additions to the team. Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and Wayne Simmonds are all expected to form a formidable leadership core that’s been missed in years past. And even with improved depth with the likes of a Zach Hyman breakout, Nick Foligno, and others, the buck will still fall on Matthews and the rest of the core four to produce. With all of them (Matthews and Marner especially) playing some of their best hockey as Leafs, it seems like they’ll finally break through their playoff wall.
This Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens series could very well end up being one of the best in the First Round. Even with Toronto’s past history of playoff failure, they’ve emerged as the heavy favourites in this series. Considering Montreal’s sputtering end to the season, that difference is exaggerated.
Toronto’s offence is facing their easiest defensive matchup yet, with a sputtering Shea Weber and a goalie who’s had a weak regular season. Montreal is facing a high-powered offence that’s shown the ability to break them down during the season series. Even the hockey gods can’t keep the Leafs from the Second Round this season.
Leafs in 6.
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