After Saturday’s thrilling, season-saving overtime victory in Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montréal Canadiens are prepping to face-off against their forever rivals in the decisive game tonight. The events of Game 6, in which the Canadiens marched to a two-goal advantage before giving it up and ultimately winning in overtime, dictates that there is officially no pressure on the Habs for tonight; they can simply play their game without worrying about potential consequences, relatively speaking.
The Media Factor
I’m sure at this point anyone who follows the sport knows how critical fans and the media can be. This criticism comes in many forms — vitriolic comments on social media, a deeply ingrained (and overly critical) sports media culture, or simply rage-screaming feelings into a metaphorical void. Maple Leafs fans know this. Even the networks that cover the team know this. Sportsnet’s Eric Engels said it best: just type “Marner” or “Matthews” into Twitter’s search bar and see for yourself. Five short days ago, Sportsnet was saying that the Leafs had “found their killer instinct” and how almost all doubt had been removed after they took a commanding 3-1 series lead. Now, it’s time for a gut check. It’s time for a redefinition. It’s as if this particular Game 7 represents a Sisyphean turning point in the Kyle Dubas era.
The Canadiens, by contrast, don’t have to deal with any of this. Their fans and media largely understand that a rebuild is already underway, and anything they can get out of any playoff series right now (with some exceptions, perhaps) is just gravy. They get that it’ll take time for all the pieces to fall into place. They give general manager Marc Bergevin credit for starting them on this road to eventual success. They won’t burn down the village if the team doesn’t win. That’s a luxury the Canadiens can’t afford to waste.
The Maple Leafs are loaded. That’s not a secret. The franchise saviour Auston Matthews scored 41 goals during the regular season and has locked up the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer. Mitch Marner is one of the league’s best playmakers. He was among the league’s top scorers this season. Even Jack Campbell, the former backup, is now unquestionably one of the best goaltenders in the league. The whole “set a league record for consecutive wins” thing really helped. The playoff versions of Matthews and Marner are polar opposites of their regular season selves. Matthews has 32 total shots in the series — 14 more than any other player — and is sitting at an expected goals rate of 3.72. He has one goal. Marner hasn’t scored a playoff goal in three years.
Marner has also been snake bitten with unnecessary penalties during this series. He flipped the puck over the glass in the third period for a delay-of-game penalty in Saturday’s overtime loss in what seemed like the culmination of his frustrations.
For the Canadiens, things are humming along nicely. Carey Price has been his regular amazing self, doing his part to keep the Maple Leafs’ big guns off the scoresheet. Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, and Phillip Danault have been tasked with shutting down Matthews and Marner and have matched up against them for 60 percent of the series. They’ve done their jobs. Rookies Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki have impressed — the latter scored the game-winner in Game 5 — and Tyler Toffoli is back in the goal column with a tally in Game 6. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has also found the scoresheet. Can anyone say depth?
An Existential Moment
At the start of these playoffs, the expectations for the Maple Leafs were sky high. They were the best team in the Scotia North Division and were expected to steamroll on their way to being the Canadian team in the postseason. The fact that they’re now playing a Game 7 means they have a responsibility to exercise the demons of years past. Matthews and Marner have a responsibility to pick the team up and carry them past the first round.
“There’s lots of moments where those guys have had chances to make the difference. They’ve got to trust that those chances will be there again and they’ve got to make good on them and through all of that they’ve got to continue to play hard and play structured and play smart and all those kinds of things.”Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe on the expectations of their big guns in Game 7.
This Maple Leafs team is now responsible for the plight of teams of seasons gone by, the struggles of a 54-year Stanley Cup drought and everything that comes with it now rest firmly on the shoulders of this year’s roster. The Canadiens don’t have that ghost hanging over their heads. The Canadiens can look back and see the last time the team won the Cup and the pictures and video are in colour. Everything is on the line for the Maple Leafs. This single game defines what they’ve built. This is a battle for the team’s soul. The Canadiens just have to play.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.