It’s certainly no surprise that the Toronto Maple Leafs are the best team in the NHL this season. They’ve finally shored up many of the issues that have plagued them for the past few seasons. The Leafs’ goaltending is finally solid, and superstar Auston Matthews and company are playing arguably the best hockey they’ve ever played. Couple that with the rapid rise of the team as a whole since the new core was drafted in 2016, and we’ve got a recipe for domination.
What’s more surprising has been the play of the Montréal Canadiens. Their offseason additions made many (including myself) believe they were going to be a good team on paper, but it’s fair to say no one predicted they’d be as good as they are. The solid play of both teams will make for both an exciting upcoming home-and-home and will ultimately decide the fate of the NHL’s North Division.
Clash of the Titans
The Maple Leafs and the Canadiens are the two best teams in the NHL’s Scotia North Division. The Maple Leafs are off to the fourth-best start in franchise history, with a record of 10-2-1, and they sit atop the standings with 21 points. The Leafs’ big guns have been on a tear; Auston Matthews has 11 goals in 12 games, and Mitch Marner leads the team with 21 points. The Buds ran roughshod over the Vancouver Canucks over the past three games, outscoring them 15-5.
The Habs have been playing far better than I think anyone could’ve predicted. They started the season as one of the league’s best teams and still are, with a record of 8-2-2. They have the best goal differential of any team in the North Division at +17 and started the season with only one regulation loss in eight games, thanks in part to a combination of their solid goaltending and lethal penalty kill.
The one thing that makes this season’s Canadiens and Maple Leafs teams different is how deep both of the rosters are. The Maple Leafs finally have a deep offence; fourth-line centre Jason Spezza has entrenched himself down the middle with masterful performances both on the scoresheet and at the faceoff dot. Wayne Simmonds has become an integral part of the lineup, so much so that his presence will be missed as he recuperates from an injury. Andrew Steele-Davis of Fansided says that Simmonds’ play can change games on a dime.
The Habs have the most potent offence in the game, scoring an average of four goals per game. Their offence is extremely balanced, with the team leaders in goals, assists, and points all being different players. Rookie centre Nick Suzuki leads the team in assists, and the top point-getter for Les Glorieux is defenceman Jeff Petry. The Habs’ scoring has also come from some unlikely sources. The team’s leading goalscorer, Tyler Toffoli, spent last season as a depth forward for both the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks. Toffoli sits third in the league in goals, two behind the league leader, the Leafs’ Auston Matthews.
The Toronto Maple Leafs sit atop the standing of both the Scotia North Division and the National Hockey League. The Montréal Canadiens are hot on their heels, three points behind in the standings with a game in hand. The players themselves already understand what these two games mean in terms of the standings, with the Canadiens’ Josh Anderson saying:
“We’re right there with them. Obviously they’ve got a lot of skill, but we’re a pretty good hockey team, too. So, I guess we’ll find out (Wednesday) night.”Josh Anderson
Spezza also has high praise for the Canadiens’ recent play, saying that their depth is one of the reasons they’ve been so successful to this point, success which goes back to the bubble last season. Wednesday night’s game will hopefully restart the rivalry, as both teams are more established than they were on opening night. Both Leafs’ and Habs’ players recognize how important these two games are, with Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe saying that it’s “a privilege” to take part in a truly meaningful Leafs-Canadiens game. Canadiens’ forward Brendan Gallagher views it as a litmus test for his team, and that these two games against the Leafs will go a long way towards achieving the goals the Canadiens set for themselves before the season began.
The two teams have been playing remarkably similar hockey so far this season, and the home-and-home may ultimately decide the destiny of the North Division, and perhaps the Stanley Cup as well.