So far, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ series against the Montreal Canadiens has been delievered exactly as advertised.
After Game 1 went to Montreal and the Leafs lost captain John Tavares to injury, they rebounded for three straight wins, including a back-to-back in Montreal. After taking a 3-1 series lead and returning to Toronto for Game 5, the Habs responded in a big way. And truth be told, this was to be expected. The Leafs dominated Games 2, 3, and 4 for the most part, so a pushback effort was on the horizon.
But that doesn’t mean the Leafs didn’t make it a game. After Montreal jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first half of the game, Toronto fought back and tied the game thanks to a two-goal effort from Jake Muzzin. An Alex Galchenyuk giveaway resulting in a 2-on-0 led to Montreal eventually taking the game in overtime, tightening the series to 3-2.
You wouldn’t have guessed it by looking at social media, but the Leafs are still in a good position. And while heading back to Montreal for Game 6 in front of fans for the first time in the North Division seems to bend the momentum in the Canadiens’ favour, the Leafs are still favoured to take the series. But for that to happen, there are three things Toronto needs in order to win a game, and thus, the series.
Matthews and Marner Need to Step Up
There aren’t too many instances where you’d say that two players with four points in five games each need to step up. And I want to preface this by saying that it’s not necessarily the production itself that I’m talking about. But three of Auston Matthews’ points came in one game, and while Mitch Marner’s offense has been consistent, he has yet to score a goal. In fact, he hasn’t scored a goal in the postseason since Game 1 against the Boston Bruins in 2019.
Matthews and Marner have been good. There’s no doubt about that. But simply put, the Leafs need their stars to be better than good. They need their stars to play like stars and take control of the game. Aside from Game 2, they haven’t really done that for the Leafs. And as great as players like William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot have been, who have seven and five points in five games, respectively, they can’t carry the team through the series.
I’ve seen good things from both players so far. I’ve really enjoyed the fact that Matthews is starting to throw the body a little bit more, and Marner is a huge reason that the penalty kill has been as effective as it’s been so far.
But the main thing I’ve noticed from these two is that they appear to lack confidence in the plays they’ve been making. Matthews seems to be shying away from taking shots, similar to how he played when he was nursing his wrist injury. I’ve lost count of the number of times Matthews will receive a pass in the slot, only to twirl around and drop it back to the defenseman.
Marner, meanwhile, has a problem with holding onto the puck for too long and overthinking plays. Oftentimes, you’ll see him carry the puck on a 2-on-1, only to hold onto it and take it behind the net for the defenseman to strip. Again, to reiterate, Matthews and Marner have been good. But the team could really use a statement game from them to help push them over the top and finally make the second round.
Jack Campbell Needs a Strong Game
To clear up any confusion early on, I am not saying Jack Campbell needs to be better. He’s been just about everything the Leafs have asked for and then some. He currently sits at second in the NHL in save percentage (.944) and goals-against average (1.61) in the postseason. He also collected his first-ever playoff shutout in Game 4.
Campbell didn’t look great in Game 5, but considering his play leading up to Thursday’s bout, it’s hard for me to criticize him. Now, here’s a telling stat for you: when Carey Price is starting, the Habs are 10-0 in playoff games since 2015 when they score three or more goals. And we all know what playoff Price is capable of when he’s on his game.
The Leafs are one of the best offensive teams in the NHL, so goalscoring on their end shouldn’t be an issue. That being said, if the Leafs can get a strong game from Campbell and do everything in their power to keep Montreal off of the scoreboard, they should win Game 6 with ease.
Toronto has proved this year, both in the regular season and the playoffs, that they can win low-scoring games. They won Game 3 by a score of 2-1. They don’t need Campbell to stand on his head, but if he can limit the amount of Montreal goals as much as possible, it’s safe to say you can rely on the Leafs’ offense to pull their weight and pot a couple.
Resilience, Resilience, and More Resilience
Can I make my point any clearer? How about one more time for good measure – they need resilience.
I wrote a piece before the series about how their resilience would determine their playoff fate. I also wrote a piece ahead of Game 2 about how their ability to handle adversity would be tested. And for the third time in three weeks, I will say it again. They need to be resilient.
And so far, I think it’s safe to say that their resilience hasn’t been an issue. They’ve dominated just about every game except for Thursday’s tilt, and even in that game, they clawed back to tie the game after being down 3-0. And even though they lost, the outcome could have been entirely different had Galchenyuk not tossed a pizza into the middle of the ice. There’s not much the team could have done about that, and they’re better off putting it in their rear-view mirror and regrouping.
You can make the argument that the Leafs have the odds stacked against them heading into Game 6. Despite being the favourites in the series, Montreal will have momentum from their win to keep them alive in Game 5, and they’ll have fans to play for. But the Leafs are still the better team, and thus, should be able to beat the Habs in their own barn. But they can’t take their foot off the gas pedal.
I still find myself thinking back to Jason Spezza’s quote about how they want to win as many games as possible on the off-chance John Tavares is ready to go before the playoffs are over. The Habs pushed back yesterday, but we know what the Leafs are capable of when they’re at the top of their game.
The Leafs don’t need to play a perfect game. They can make mistakes. It’s human nature. But what they can’t do is shoot themselves in the foot. As much as I’ve said they shouldn’t hang their heads over Galchenyuk’s giveaway, they can’t afford to make a mistake like that in a game like this one. They need to take Montreal’s supposed momentum boost and be ready to fight back.
The Leafs are favoured more in this playoff series than they have been in any other matchup. There is simply no reason they should lose unless they do it to themselves. But if Montreal forces a Game 7, I truly believe it will be anybody’s series to take. And given the Leafs’ recent track record in Game 7s, I think it’s safe to say Leaf fans want to avoid that potential outcome like the plague.
But with a big game from Matthews and Marner, a strong showing from Campbell, and an overall hard-fought team effort, they can advance past the first round for the first time since 2004. And they are the only ones who can control this outcome.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.