The NHLs oldest rivalry will be adding a new chapter. The Montreal Canadiens will face off versus the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs for the first time since 1979.
The overall consensus is that Montreal will be lucky if they can force a Game 4 against the mighty Maple Leafs (yes, it’s a seven-game series, but that’s just how dominant they make Toronto out to be). However, that was also the consensus last season in the playoff bubble, when the Habs faced the Pittsburgh Penguins and won the series 3-1 in the qualifying round before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the first round.
After losing the season series against the Maple Leafs with a record of 3-6-1, the Canadiens are the underdogs in this series. But, they aren’t without hope. There is a path to victory or, at the very least, one that could make life very difficult for a Maple Leafs’ team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004.
Here are three keys to the Canadiens’ success.
The Canadiens faced an unprecedented schedule after they returned from a COVID pause due to Joel Armia’s positive test. They played 25 games in 41 days, finishing the season with eight games in 13 days. This is a recipe for injuries and inconsistent play, which was the case and caused a losing record of 10-13-1 (as of 11 May).
The silver lining is that most of their injured players are set to return. Carey Price (concussion), Shea Weber (left hand), Brendan Gallagher (left hand), Phillip Danault (concussion) are all expected to be back for Game 1. There is no update on the Jonathan Drouin situation – who left the team for personal reasons – but because he was placed on LTIR, the rules are 10 games and 28 days, so if he wants to return, it can’t be before 24 May.
The Habs will also benefit from the expected week off before the start of the playoffs with more time to recover and a desperately needed rest for the roster. This should be a big boost to the club. Paul Byron displayed the speed he had been missing much of the season in his return. After missing nine games, he became a key weapon against the Edmonton Oilers on 9 May when the Canadiens clinched their playoff berth. He had a goal, an assist, and was a plus-3 matched up against Leon Draisaitl’s line.
Montreal will need a healthy and fully rested lineup to compete in this series. Having their starting goaltender in Price, their top shutdown defenceman in Weber, top shutdown centre in Danault, and heart and soul player in Gallagher return will be a major step in competing with the Scotiabank North Division champions.
When the Canadiens were successful in the second half this season, it came from finding a proper balance on their defensive pairings, playing a mobile defender with the traditional stay-at-home defenceman. This allows them to play a punishing physical game while generating speed in transition.
It is true, Toronto is a fast team, and the Habs will need to match them. To do that, they’ll need to start in their own zone. With Price in net, they’ll have a goaltender who can handle the puck and make plays, which should help the defence retrieve dump-ins and start the counter-attack.
Head coach Dominique Ducharme’s system is still a hybrid of Claude Julien’s, which is based on short passes where centres like Nick Suzuki must retrieve the puck deep in the defensive zone from the defenceman carrying the puck, then make another pass from the weak side to the forward who is moving out of the zone with speed. If this break-out opportunity is missed, the Canadiens get trapped in their zone, and players fall out of position. This is where Toronto excels; in creating breakdowns in coverage to generate passing and shooting lanes for high-danger scoring chances.
The forward depth will play a major role in the Canadiens’ ability to play with speed. Ducharme will need to roll all four lines to maintain energy and intensity. They’ll also need to dart in and out of the slot and generate cycle game in the offensive zone. By wearing down Toronto’s defence with their physicality and speed, they’ll generate shots in bulk, which, without a bonafide game-breaker, has been the Canadiens’ method of scoring.
One of the few areas where Montreal has an advantage is on special teams. These two teams are shockingly similar in their scoring rate on the power play. The Canadiens finished 19th in the NHL with a 19.3% success rate, and the Maple Leafs, even with all their firepower, finished 16th at 20.3%.
In the last 10 games (as of 11 May), the Canadiens’ power play improved to 21.4%. Meanwhile, Toronto’s power play in that time was a paltry 5.8%. If the Maple Leafs fear the Habs’ power play, they will play carefully to avoid penalties, which can open up space and help the Canadiens offensively.
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Surprisingly, the Habs hold the edge on the penalty kill at 79.3%, ranked 18th in the NHL. Toronto’s penalty kill is ranked 24th at 77.7%. To be successful in this series, Montreal will need that trend to continue. In the last 10 games (as of 11 May), both penalty kills have improved significantly: The Habs have a 91.7% success rate, and Toronto has an 88.9% rate.
The Maple Leafs’ surprising struggles with the man advantage, considering they have the Rocket Richard Trophy-winner, Auston Matthews, on the team, could give the Canadiens the edge, as it would remove a major offensive weapon from Toronto. By winning the special teams battle, the Canadiens can add to their already strong five on five (5v5) possession numbers, which are ranked higher than Toronto’s.
There is hope. Maybe they will make it a long series, or maybe they will win it. Toronto’s Cup window is open now. For the underdog Habs, ensuring they make each game close and stretch the series out is a moral victory as it demonstrates improvement over last season’s results. The franchise is still rebuilding, and the upcoming playoff experience will help the young players progress in their development. With a healthy roster and some time to rest and heal before the playoffs begin, the Canadiens can make this a longer series than most would expect