As of this writing, we are less than 24 hours from the 2020-21 season-opening puck drop between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. This match will be the first of 10 scheduled between the two historic rivals in the newly created Northern Division. Regardless of the opponent, every game the Canadiens play will matter in the shortened 56-game season. There is very little room for error.
However, it’s safe to say there will be added emphasis on the games against the Maple Leafs, partially due to the fans’ engagement with the rivalry. Habs fans may already be riled up by the general media consensus that the Maple Leafs will be the best team in the Northern Division this season; 20 Sportsnet insiders were polled on Tuesday and 11 of them chose the Maple Leafs to win the division. The second choice was the Calgary Flames with six votes.
Beating the Maple Leafs tonight, or all season, would please the fans, but it would also send a message to the league and the media that the Canadiens mean business. Of course, they will have to prove it.
So today, with Toronto on the docket, I will propose the Canadiens’ three keys to besting the Maple Leafs in their 10-game season series.
Habs Depth Needs to Make a Difference
The Canadiens went 3-0-0 against the Maple Leafs during the 2019-20 season, though one win was in overtime and another in a shootout. Without the same offensive firepower and depth, the Habs had to build their victories on the strength of their skating ability on all four lines. This needs to continue.
This season, expect the high-end talent on the Maple Leafs to be more explosive. The Habs do not have an Auston Matthews or a Mitch Marner. However, their bottom-six is stronger, and they will need to find their way onto the score sheet consistently, especially the Canadiens’ third line of Tyler Toffoli, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia. Armia and Toffoli are proven 20-goal scorers, and they will need to score at that pace again this season.
As of now, Kotkaniemi’s line will play opposite to a formidable Maple Leafs third line composed of Ilya Mikheyev, Alex Kerfoot and Zach Hyman. Hyman has scored 20 goals or more twice, Kerfoot has reached the 40-point plateau twice and Mikheyev showed promise in an injury shortened campaign last season.
If the Phillip Danault and Nick Suzuki lines can contain the Maple Leafs’ star players, or break even with them, the pressure will be on the Canadiens’ third line outplay and outscore the Kerfoot line. Doing so would increase the Habs’ chances of victory and reduce pressure on their top-two lines.
The Maple Leafs have incredible talent in their top-six forward group, so the Canadiens’ defence needs to punish the Maple Leafs’ top forwards at every opportunity. The Habs’ defence is built for this. This offseason, general manager Marc Bergevin added to the defence core by acquiring a very physical defenceman in Joel Edmundson.
Four of the Canadiens’ top six defencemen, including Edmundson, Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, are 6-foot-3 or taller. Three of them weigh close to or over 230 pounds. Add young Alexander Romanov, who is listed at 6-feet, 208 pounds, and frankly, you have a group that can make life miserable for skilled forwards.
The Maple Leafs in previous seasons, fairly or not, have been labelled soft, which is why some believe they haven’t advanced in the playoffs past teams like the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and most recently the Columbus Blue Jackets. These teams all played with an effective physical edge against Toronto and their star players.
Since their loss to the Blue Jackets in the 2020 Playoffs, the Maple Leafs have added size and grit, with players like Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian. The Canadiens won’t be intimidated, but they will need to test Toronto’s mettle early and often in each of their 10 games. If the Habs can establish a physical presence and win their first game, it will send a message for future meetings. Still, they will need to be smart with their physical play as the Maple Leafs’ power play can be lethal.
Win Special Teams Battle
Toronto finished the 2019-20 season with the sixth-best power-play percentage, with a 23 percent success rate. On the other hand, the Habs’ penalty kill finished 22nd in the league at 17.7 percent. They will need to play lights out on the penalty kill, or it will be difficult to beat the Maple Leafs.
The Canadiens must force Toronto to dump the puck in and grind in the corners to get it back. In this scenario, the Habs have the advantage. In addition, they need to be aggressive in their pressure up ice while the Maple Leafs attempt to break out on the power play.
Finally, the Canadiens need to get their power play in order. Their five-on-five play has been strong for the last two seasons, but the power play has been ineffective. In their recent practices, both of their power-play units have adopted an approach that maximizes shooting threats from various angles. Having several threats should help.
However, as I pointed out in the summer, Montreal’s biggest power play issue was their inability to gain the offensive zone with any sort of speed or support. Too often they were turned back before they could get set up. Against the Maple Leafs, they will need to be quick and show desperation in their zone entries and puck retrievals. If they can do this, they can skew the chances of defeating Toronto in their favour this season.
I rarely, if ever, make predictions but here is my (probably poor but gutsy) season series prediction: The Canadiens gain a 5-3-2 record against the Maple Leafs. Feel free to jeer when the results are in, and enjoy the season!