The Montréal Canadiens haven’t played a game since May 12, an overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers. While the rest of the league’s playoff series are underway, the Canadiens have had to sit back and watch the playoff games (and a few remaining regular-season games) until they face off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night.
This long layoff means that some teams have played three games before the Habs even begin their playoff series. The seven-day wait could ultimately impact their performance out of the gate, especially against a team like the Maple Leafs. However, it could also have the opposite effect, potentially giving the Canadiens a leg up on their forever rivals.
Lessons From the (Out) Break
The most telltale sign of performance potential comes as a result of another long layoff the Habs were forced to take earlier this season. They were required to postpone four games and miss 10 days of team activities as Joel Armia and Jesperi Kotkaniemi tested positive for COVID-19. From March 20-29, the team was prohibited from taking part in practices or team-related activities. After their return, their inconsistency was noticeable.
Although they came storming out of the gates with a 4-0 shutout win over the Oilers, their performances following that dominant victory were far from consistent. They lost seven of their next 11 games, including three contests at the hands of the lowly Ottawa Senators. Given that their next four games (at least) are against one of the league’s most dominant teams, the combination doesn’t necessarily bode well. The Canadiens clearly struggled with consistency coming off the COVID-related layoff (as they have throughout the season). A similarly long pause as they wait to get their playoff series underway, coupled with the fact that they’ll be facing one of the league’s best teams, means extra vigilance will be needed if the Habs want to avoid falling asleep at the wheel.
Return of the Kings
The long layoff between ending the regular season and starting the playoffs could have some positive impacts, too, mainly in terms of getting players rested and healthy. Captain Shea Weber participated in a full practice for the first time since sustaining an upper-body injury on April 28 against the Maple Leafs. The Canadiens’ most recent practice had him paired with deadline acquisition John Merrill on the third duo. Weber’s return means his stabilizing presence is back in the dressing room and his leadership will provide a spark to the team. Canadiens’ forward Tyler Toffoli said of his captain:
“Weby’s a beast. He’s a warrior and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win. I know he was like a little kid being able to start shooting and playing physical and we had a couple of battle drills for him today and he looked awesome.”Candiens’ forward Tyler Toffoli on the impact of Shea Weber’s return to practice and game action (from “Canadiens’ Shea Weber is 100-Per-Cent Ready for Game 1 vs. Leafs” Stu Cowan. Montréal Gazette. 19/05/2021.)
The Habs are also awaiting the return of goaltender Carey Price and forward Brendan Gallagher, both of whom have missed significant time and are currently undergoing a conditioning stint with the Laval Rocket. Price has been out of the lineup since April 19 after suffering a concussion against the Oilers, and Gallagher since April 5, also against Edmonton. Gallagher’s return could provide a much-needed spark for the Canadiens, as he’s been described as the team’s most impactful player.
Like the captain Shea Weber, Gallagher’s leadership and tenacity will prove a catalyst for the team. Price’s presence in the blue paint would also shore up the Habs’ back end, something they’d no doubt need against Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares.
A Leaf Layoff
While the Canadiens are forced to endure a long layoff, the Maple Leafs also are waiting. While the Habs can use it to get healthy and return a full squad for Thursday night, the Leafs are forced to just sit and wait. This could mean that the hot streaks of Matthews and others are interrupted, and perhaps not as much of a factor come the start of Game 1.
The long layoff, coupled with the recent performances of some of the lesser thought of players like Rasmus Sandin and Riley Nash, could mean that the Maple Leafs will have some complicated lineup decisions to make. The potential for a lineup carousel may mean that some players get overlooked. I know they usually say too much depth is a good thing, but constant changes can really sap a team’s momentum come playoff time.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe also faces a decision regarding forward Zach Hyman. Having suffered a sprained MCL, Keefe was adamant about inserting him on the top line with Matthews and Marner, even though he hasn’t played since April 18. This could result in an aggravation or worsening of his injury, which could ultimately prove detrimental to the Leafs’ performance. Hyman is one of the Leafs’ most reliable and driven players, and overworking him too soon may result in him having to miss time in the postseason. If this happens, expect the Canadiens to jump at the opportunity to gain some ground.
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The fact that the Canadiens haven’t played in a full week might result in a sluggish start and a loss of momentum, but it could also mean the same for their opponents. The Habs can use the time off to get their full squad back, and it’ll force the Leafs to make some interesting and potentially series-changing lineup choices. Both teams will likely be impacted, despite how much we’re all itching for the series to get going.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.