With just over a week left to play in the regular season, playoff matchups are being cemented across the league, and now holding a six-point lead over the Edmonton Oilers, the Scotia North Division is all but sealed for the Toronto Maple Leafs. What is yet to be determined, though, is who they’ll face in the first round.
As of May 6, the Leafs look poised to take on the Montreal Canadiens who sit in fourth place, two points back of the Winnipeg Jets. On Wednesday night, we saw a huge four-point swing as the Jets beat the Calgary Flames while the Canadiens fell to the Ottawa Senators, bringing Winnipeg’s chances of finishing third all the way up to 91.4 percent per MoneyPuck. So, while it does seem likely that we’ll be seeing the first Toronto-Montreal series since 1979, the dust is not fully settled, especially considering that the Maple Leafs are pretty banged up, will be resting some key players over their final four outings, and will take on the Canadiens in two of those games.
Let’s preview the Maple Leafs’ potential first round matchups and look at why Toronto may prefer to take on the Jets in the first round.
Winnipeg Has Been the Worst Team in the NHL Since Mid-April
This storyline seemed to go a bit under the radar but the Jets have actually been the worst team in the NHL since April 15, putting up a 2-7-0 record and .222 points percentage over their last nine games. That’s coincided with some pretty poor underlying numbers at 5-on-5 including a 46.03 percent Corsi for (CF%), 44 percent expected goals for (xGF%), and a 43.33 percent goals for (GF%), indicating that they have more or less deserved their fate. Given that this cold streak is happening at the worst possible time for the Jets, the Leafs should be licking their chops at the idea of a potential first-round matchup where they could capitalize on Winnipeg’s lackluster play and wilting confidence.
Even if we extend the timeframe, the Jets haven’t really looked like a true powerhouse over the course of this season. Through 52 games they rank 18th in CF%, 24th in xGF%, and 16th in GF%. Compare that to the Maple Leafs who rank ninth, second, and second, respectively, while beating the Jets 6-3 in their season series, and you’ve got a pretty sizable mismatch.
The one caveat with Winnipeg, of course, is their goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s top goalie and is capable of stealing any given game, and potentially even a whole series. But, like the Jets, Hellebuyck has had his fair share of struggles this season. After coming hot out of the gate with a .921 save percentage (SV%) and 13.33 goals saved above average (GSAA) through his first 33 games, the star netminder has put up an .887 SV% over his last nine appearances along with minus-5.33 GSAA — seventh-worst among all goalies.
While the Jets do have some weapons up front and a deadly power play, they look like a relatively mediocre team that probably won’t make much noise unless Hellebuyck can turn things around and go on a Vezina-like tear. That’s certainly not impossible, but given how the last month or so has gone, the Maple Leafs should like their chances.
Montreal Is Deep and Strong at 5-on-5
The story has been the same in Montreal for a few years now — they lack the star power up front, but they get the job done by committee with strong systems and tons of depth. The Canadiens may not have lived up to their early season juggernaut hype, but they’ve continued to put up excellent underlying numbers, sitting second in CF%, eighth in xGF%, and 14th in GF%.
Their 16th-ranked power play may not be as effective as the Jets (who are clicking along at 24.2 percent) but their ability to control play and shut things down at 5-on-5 can be frustrating to play against. Montreal has allowed 2.16 goals against per hour (GA/60) at 5-on-5 (10th in the NHL) on just 1.93 expected goals against per hour (xGA/60) — fifth in the NHL, tied with Toronto. That is eerily similar to the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets who allowed 2.08 GA/60 (fifth) and 2.04 xGA/60 (fourth) en route to a qualifying round upset over the Maple Leafs last summer. Obviously, there were some extenuating circumstances that led to the Leafs’ loss in that five-game series, but it’s hard to deny the parallels between the two teams, especially if the Canadiens can get some clutch goaltending.
Speaking of goaltending, we’ve seen some changing of the guard this season in Montreal. While Carey Price still carries the reputation of an elite goaltender, the results haven’t really been there for a few seasons, and his .901 SV% and minus-4.54 GSAA through 25 games is disappointing, but not necessarily surprising. When general manager Marc Bergevin traded for Jake Allen last season, the assumption was that he would be a great backup for Price, allowing their starter to manage his workload and play at a higher level.
The reality is that Allen has outplayed Price so far, putting up a respectable .907 SV% and minus-0.57 GSAA — about replacement level numbers. Price is currently out with a concussion while Allen has struggled recently with an .890 SV% over his last eight starts. Neither of those bode well for the Canadiens, but because they’re so solid at 5-on-5, they won’t need miraculous goaltending to take a series to six or even seven games.
The Maple Leafs have asserted themselves as one of the NHL’s premier teams this season and when it comes down to it, they really shouldn’t have much trouble with any first-round matchup — at least on paper. While we’ve seen Toronto falter in the playoffs before, this team just looks and feels different. And now, regardless of opponent, it’s time to prove it.
Stats from naturalstattrick.com
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.