Toronto Maple Leafs vs Montreal Canadiens: North Division Round #1 Playoff Preview

“OF COURSE!!!”… has been the phrase that I have heard most often since the playoff matchups were confirmed for the North Division. OF COURSE in a year where there is no fans allowed into Scotiabank Arena is the year that we get the first Leafs vs Habs playoff matchup in over 40 years. A series we were robbed of in 1993 (shoutout Kerry Fraser) will now happen in a year where the full playoff series experience is just simply not possible.

Nonetheless, there is still hockey to be played and quite frankly… the stakes could not be higher for either team. For Montreal, a series win as an underdog against their bitter rivals will go a long way in the account of goodwill with their fans for the aging core of Price (33), Weber (35), and Gallagher (29). For Toronto, a chance to win the first playoff series since 2004 against their oldest rival, not to mention this is the first time this core of Leafs players is favoured in a best-of-seven series.

So what better way to get excited for a playoff series than to dig into the details of the game and see where the edge lies for each team. Specifically, I’ll be doing a statistical comparison for each team, a line matchup comparison (assuming health) using Corsica Hockey’s Player Rating Metric, and finally my series prediction.

Team Statistical Comparison (5v5 and Special Teams)

TorontoStatMontreal
53.55 (12th)CF/6059.17 (3rd)
51.44 (11th)CA/6049.39 (7th)
2.88 (4th)GF/602.32 (T18th)
2.07 (6th)GA/602.26 (13th)
2.47 (4th)xGF/602.20 (11th)
2.01 (8th)xGA/601.95 (5th)
9.68 (3rd)SH%7.50 (25th)
92.36 (7th)SV%91.37 (22nd)
20.00 (16th)PP%19.20 (17th)
78.50 (T23rd)PK%78.50 (T23rd)
Data courtesy of Natural Stattrick and NHL.com

When we look at this statistical comparison, it is clear that the narrative of each team has some truth to it.

Offensively, the Leafs are very much a quality over quantity team when it comes to shooting whereas Montreal is quite literally the opposite. On paper, this discrepancy makes sense given the significant advantage in star power the Leafs have over the Canadiens. The playoffs seem to always come down to a player’s game breaking ability and it should comfort Leafs fans knowing that they have at least 4 of them in their lineup along with numerous complementary players who also need to step up when opportunity knocks.

Defensively, the story stays relatively the same when we talk about quality over quantity. Except the most obvious advantage here is the stability in goal that Jack Campbell has provided versus the drop off in play of Carey Price. The Habs’ $10 million dollar man has been known to turn the dial back when the playoffs come around and can quite literally change the series on its head. Both teams do not give up much defensively, which is a newly welcomed compliment by Leafs fans after years of dismal defensive play. If Jack Campbell can keep doing what he’s shown all season, tracking pucks through traffic, rebound control, and most importantly… timely saves, then the Leafs should feel comfortable throughout this series.

If there is anything to be worried about from a Leafs perspective this series, it is by far their special teams play. Toronto’s powerplay is on one of the coldest streaks I can remember and the scary part is that it has seemed to overtake the players’ confidence when on the man-advantage. On a positive note, their penalty kill has improved drastically and that 78.5% over this season does not serve justice to the growth I’ve seen from each Leafs penalty killer. The insertion of Riley Nash and Nick Foligno will only improve the teams confidence in this area, look for the former Blue Jackets to share killing duties with Hyman, Marner, Mikheyev, and Kerfoot.

Forward Lines Comparison

Hyman (74.56) Matthews (82.30)Marner (76.61)
Foligno (72.51)Tavares (77.57)Nylander (76.11)
Mikheyev (74.03)Nash (69.70)Kerfoot (70.82)
Thornton (72.25)Spezza (69.42)Simmonds (70.24)
Galchenyuk (70.80)Brooks (N/A)Engvall (71.02)
Lines from CapFriendly and Player Ratings from Corsica Hockey
Tatar (77.73)Danault (75.54)Gallagher (78.34)
Toffoli (75.91)Suzuki (N/A)Armia (73.07)
Perry (70.83)Staal (74.23)Anderson (73.36)
Byron (71.84)Evans (N/A)Lehkonen (71.70)
Frolík (70.70)Kotkaniemi (N/A)Caufield (N/A)
Lines from CapFriendly and Player Ratings from Corsica Hockey

It should be noted that these player ratings factor in game data previous to the start of this regular season as 56 games was deemed too small of a sample size, so please don’t think that a higher rated player is currently playing better than a lower rated player.

Once again, the data aligns with what we already knew about the top-six matchup. The Leafs have some exceptional talent in their top two lines and each pair of star forwards is complimented by their very own defensively sound but also skilled puck retriever who can be relentless on the forecheck. Montreal on the other hand, cannot match the star power of the Leafs but do have some bonafide top-line players in their own right. The key to winning this matchup belongs to the pair of Matthews and Marner. They have been one of the best duo’s in the league and when at their best… there isn’t a player on the Habs that can stop them. I don’t think it is in an understatement to say that aside from Jack Campbell (because goaltending is voodoo), #34 and #16 will not just decide who wins this series… but they also will decide how long this series will go.

The ratings do shine a light on the Leafs bottom-six on paper and how well they will play relative to the Habs bottom-six. From my perspective, this comparison only further emphasizes how important Riley Nash is to the Leafs during this series. I am not saying he will be the only reason Toronto wins this series, but it would go a long way if he can shut-down Nick Suzuki every night while getting heavily utilized in the defensive zone. The goal for Sheldon Keefe since the start of the year has always been to ice a third line who strictly gets defensive zone starts and plays against the other team’s top-six. It also isn’t lost on me that Nash’s reliability defensively will drastically affect the usage of the Spezza line. What those three older guys lack in speed, they make up for in work ethic and puck possession in the offensive zone… getting them more offensive zone starts than defensive zone starts will likely be the difference in their ability to positively impact the series for Toronto.

Defence Pairs Comparison

Rielly (75.31)Brodie (74.21)
Muzzin (75.12)Holl (72.00)
Sandin (72.29)Bogosian (71.45)
Hutton (73.47)Dermott (71.68)
Pairs from CapFriendly and Player Ratings from Corsica Hockey
Edmundson (73.76)Petry (76.71)
Merrill (72.61)Weber (76.50)
Kulak (73.43)Chiarot (73.81)
Romanov (N/A)Gustafsson (72.88)
Pairs from CapFriendly and Player Ratings from Corsica Hockey

If we were to do this comparison last season, I would be telling Leafs fans to sound the alarms because there was no scenario I can retroactively envision where last year’s defence would outperform Montreal’s in a seven-game series. But this year, the conversation becomes much more legitimate with the additions of T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian.

This is a scenario were I think the player ratings are significantly undervaluing players like Brodie, Muzzin and Bogosian and overrating players like Edmundson and Merrill. What the three previously mentioned Leafs defencemen have done is completely stabilize their pairing and give this new sense of comfort to those watching that everything is under control. I am well aware that the seasons of Brodie and Muzzin are more impressive than Bogosian’s but there is a commonality between the three, and that word is “confidence”. Their play reminds me of one of my favourite sports movie quotes… in D3: The Mighty Ducks when the much maligned new head coach of the Ducks, Coach Orion, who just recently took over for beloved Gordon Bombay addresses the team about “the one thing all great teams have”. The dramatization, the background music, all of it comes together so well in that scene to get the message across that “confidence” is the key to a successful defence. “Don’t be careless, but don’t be too careful either”… that very quote describes Brodie, Muzzin and Bogosian perfectly.

Furthermore, it would be very remiss of me if I were to not talk about Morgan Rielly. His struggles have been evident this year, he is shooting less, he’s had more mental lapses, and the scary thing is… he does not look injured like he was last year and he is doing all this while playing beside the best partner he’s ever had. We talked at length about Rielly on our latest podcast, and the message I’d like to get across on this topic is quite simple… his future with the club is absolutely irrelevant until the day after the Leafs final game, whether that last game is a heartbreaking loss or ends up with him hoisting the silver thing, the conversation will be had this off-season. The emergence of Sandin and the opportunity that he is getting from Keefe on the powerplay is obvious to say the least. Morgan is the longest tenured member of this organization, by all accounts he is the most respected guy in the locker room because of his ability to connect with teammates young and old, and we must look no further than September 2019 to remember he was a legitimate candidate to be the captain of this team. Any discussion involving his future should and will be heavily scrutinized from all angles and it from those talks, all we can hope for is that Kyle Dubas and his staff make the right decision for this organization.

Overall, I do think Montreal’s defence will pose a problem for the Leafs. They are a big, strong, and heavy group of defencemen who will not be afraid to flirt with the line of physical play allowed under the rulebook. We should not pretend that playoff games are called the same as the regular season so look for guys like Edmundson, Weber, and Chiarot to legitimately try to hurt the Leafs’ skilled forwards. It will be a big test for the likes of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander to battle through the checks… find middle ice and still create scoring opportunities. Lastly on the Leafs side of things, they will need to rely on their ability to retrieve pucks off dump-ins and breakout quickly and smoothly to eliminate the effect of Montreal’s forecheck.

Prediction

Look everyone, it is still a seven-game series. There is a reason you play the games and no amount of success in the regular season ever guarantees you a single thing once that puck drops on Thursday night. Montreal will try to drag the Leafs into a secondary match that occurs between the whistles and they’ll look to bait the Leafs into taking retaliatory penalties. Toronto will need to be relentless in every aspect of the game, as they have been almost every game this season.

After considering every factor in this series, the keys to success for Toronto is having the stars produce (both at 5v5 and powerplay), their bottom-six can at least break even on production against the Habs bottom-six, the defence don’t allow the Habs speedy forecheck to keep them hemmed in their own zone, and most importantly… Jack Campbell’s performance doesn’t fall off of a cliff.

Once the trade deadline passed, you could have found me on Twitter and on this website using the term “Let’s. Ride.”, and with this series I will be riding with Leafs in six!

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