The Toronto Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs is special. It’s so special we invited our The Hockey Writers colleagues, from the Habs crew, to the Maple Leafs Lounge to give us a different perspective on this highly anticipated series. This episode proves just because you don’t agree with everything someone says you can still be kind. This is important to remember in the coming weeks, as two of the most storied franchises with huge fanbases made up of loyal fanatics faceoff for the first time in the postseason since 1979.
Toronto comes into this series as heavy favourites; most analysts and commentators predict a Toronto series win. Not so fast, says Canadiens writer Melissa Boyd. “I think the underdog tag suits Montreal well. They’ve played well with it over the last decade. They have had big upsets. Even last year in the playoff bubble, they upset the Penguins, when first of all, no one thought they should be there, and nobody thought they were going to do anything. They’ve done it before. There is no reason they can’t do it again.”
Injuries and Lineups
Montreal played four games a week for the entire month of April and a week of May. They were down several key players and just looked tired as the season came to an end. That’s why Habs’ writer, Trege Wilson, said, “with a healthy Montreal Canadiens and a rested Montreal Canadiens, this could go either way.”
That once depleted lineup has been restocked, “as of now, I believe it is only (Jonathan) Drouin who won’t be back. (Phillip) Danault, with his concussion, is still a bit iffy, but he is practicing. (Carey) Price is back. Everyone except (Shea) Weber practiced today (Saturday),” said Wilson. He also said a picture of Weber getting his vaccine surfaced, and the captain was wearing a brace on his wrist. Brendan Gallagher will also be back for the playoffs. He only played 35 games this season.
Toronto is nearly at total capacity minus one Stanley Cup-winning defenseman. Zach Bogosian is still healing from a shoulder injury. Zach Hyman is back and is expected to in the top six. Frederik Anderson also returned to the Leafs’ net on May 12. It was his first NHL action since March 19. But Jack Campbell will start the series.
The Leafs are so healthy that several regular contributors during the regular season will be healthy scratches. It’s expected that Riley Nash will play in game one. Hyman’s return and Nick Foligno in the top six means Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall could be healthy scratches.
“It’s a good problem to have, to have so many forward options,” said Maple Leafs’ writer Alex Hobson. “I would be surprised if Sheldon Keefe stuck with the same lineup every single game,” said Hobson. “I think we are going to be seeing different guys shifting in and out of the lineup.” The Old Prof noted Keefe has changed his lines all season, “there is no more creative bench boss, well maybe there is but I don’t know them, than Keefe. He really does like to flip-flop around and see what is going on. A line is not a line with the Maple Leafs. It’s very creative and depends on what is going on.”
Strategizing a Game Plan
They played each other nine times this season, so they know each other well. That said, Toronto won the series 7-2-1. So how does Montreal beat Toronto? “It starts in goal. Number one Carey Price has to outperform Jack Campbell,” said Boyd. “Carey Price is going to have to be the Carey Price we know, the Carey Price we love as Habs fans. That’s where it is going to start and probably end.” Her colleague Wilson backed up the statement, “Price is the end all be all. Price, mid-season this year, we are not going to win. Price plays like the bubble last year; we are in this game.”
The writers also said Montreal has to take away time and space to silence the potent Toronto offence. “I believe (Mitch)Marner is the most key person on that line. You take Marner out of the play; he is not passing to Matthews. Matthews can score from anywhere. Credit where credit is due. Matthews is probably one of the most prolific scorers in the game right now. I just swallowed some vomit saying that, but it is absolutely true,” said Wilson.
In response to Price being the key for Montreal, Leafs’ writer Peter Baracchini made this conclusion, “well, if that is the case, you’ve got to score more goals on Carey Price.” Barachinni added that Toronto’s defence improved this season, and he expects it to hold Montreal in check. “Defense was the focal point this season… the Leafs currently rank seventh with allowing 2.64 goals against this season. They were 25th last season. They prioritized defence, and that is going to be key for them this year.”
The Montreal writers mentioned the defence, Nick Suzuki and a couple of other players who will be significant in the series. “I think (Josh) Anderson is going to be a big guy to play,” said Wilson. “A healthy Anderson, I think he is going to finish all of his checks. He is going to rush the net. He has the size and speed.”
“Jeff Petry, he drives so much for the Canadiens, especially offensively,” said Boyd. “We all know that puck-moving defensemen are not numerous on the Canadiens roster right now; he struggled in the middle of the season, thankfully he picked it up the last ten games or so, he is going to be a huge factor driving the play in both zones.”
For Toronto, of course, it’s the dynamic duo of Matthews and Marner. Baracchini added the second-line centre, “John Tavares, the captain, had a subpar play in series last year. Sheldon Keefe went to him and said we need our leaders to be a major force right now, and he talked to John Tavares about how to get that mindset going.”
“Joe Thornton and the leadership of the room, I think that is amazing.” The Old Prof points to several leaders who give the Leafs an advantage. Hobson also singled out Thornton, “put yourself in Joe Thornton’s shoes. He is 41 years old, and he is entering what will likely be his final playoff run. Even just heading down the stretch into these playoffs, he was riding a quiet point streak for a while, and we have seen him start to turn it up another gear.
Before the puck drops on this series, we had to put our predictions in stone:
Baracchini: Toronto in 6
Boyd: Montreal in 7
Wilson: Toronto in 6
Hobson: Toronto in 6
Old Prof: Toronto in 4
Armstrong: Toronto in 5
All the writers agree the Edmonton Oilers will win other North Division series against the Winnipeg Jets. Game one of the Toronto and Montreal series is Thursday, May 20. Game two will be one of the most epic and possibly the highest rated Hockey Night in Canada’s games of the season on Saturday, May 22.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.