The Toronto Maple Leafs will finally begin their quest for the Stanley Cup on Thursday as they face off against their longtime rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. By all accounts, the Leafs had a successful season, putting up a record of 35-14-7, good for sixth overall in the NHL as they claimed their first division title since 2000. Toronto will go into this first-round matchup as heavy favourites, predicted unanimously by Sportsnet’s insiders to take down the Habs.
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If you’ve been following the blue and white for long enough, though (or even as recently as just last season), you may not feel all that confident despite all signs pointing to a Leafs win. In fact, you may hear a little voice in the back of your head telling you that despite all the odds, percentages, and predictions, the Leafs will find a way to blow it; after all, they haven’t won a playoff series since 2004!
But let’s drown out all that noise and ignore our emotions, however strong they may be, for just one second. There’s a reason the Maple Leafs took the crown in the North, and there are at least three good reasons why they’ll cruise to a first-round win over the Canadiens.
The Maple Leafs Dominated the Canadiens This Season
It’s often said that once the playoffs start, everything that happened in the regular season becomes moot. There’s certainly some truth to that belief, but it’s hard to ignore just how well the Leafs played the Canadiens in their season series.
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Through 10 games, Toronto dominated Montreal with a 7-2-1 record, taking 15 out of a possible 20 points while outscoring them 34-25. At 5-on-5, the Leafs outscored the Canadiens 24-17 while earning 54 percent of the expected goals (xGF%), and Toronto’s anemic power play even outpaced Montreal’s by a score of 6-4. The only category that the Habs really dominated was hits (321-195), but their focus on physicality clearly didn’t faze the Leafs’ stars.
Unless Montreal is able to make some pretty significant adjustments and get a miraculous performance in net, it’s hard to imagine them overpowering the Leafs.
Toronto’s Offence Will Overpower Montreal’s Defence
With household names like Shea Weber and Jeff Petry on the blue line, a lot has been made of Montreal’s stout defence. Some of that hype is for good reason, as the Canadiens’ 1.95 expected goals against per hour (xGA/60) at 5-on-5 was fifth in the NHL this season (interestingly tied with the Leafs). When it comes to their head-to-head matchup, though, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Toronto’s big four got the better of the Habs’ defence.
Auston Matthews, in particular, continued to fill the scoresheet against Montreal this season, a habit he’s had since he entered the league. In fact, his 19 goals and 31 points in 24 career games against the Canadiens are second only to his production against the Ottawa Senators, who he’s lit up for 23 goals and 39 points. No matter who the Habs line up against this season’s Rocket Richard winner, it’s hard to imagine that they will be able to slow him down given his track record.
The Maple Leafs Have the Edge in Net
We saved the most controversial point for last: Jack Campbell is the best goaltender in this series. That may be a hard pill to swallow for some, given Carey Price’s [outdated] reputation as an elite goaltender, but it’s hard to ignore what Campbell has done this season (and how much Price has fallen off in recent years).
Courtesy of Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette), this head-to-head comparison between goaltenders illustrates Campbell’s excellent performance. Compared to every other goalie on either team, the Leafs’ new starter led in every meaningful category from goals against average (GAA) to save percentage (Pct). Even comparing the two teams on the whole, Toronto’s netminders came out on top by almost every major category over 56 games and outplayed Montreal’s goalies through their season series.
Montreal’s ace in the hole, of course, is that playoff Price may once again come out to play. We all saw what he did in last year’s postseason bubble, posting an impressive .936 save percentage and 1.78 GAA over 10 games. Based on this season’s performance and the fact that he is just coming off a concussion, that kind of resurgence seems unlikely, but we can’t count him out completely.
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In the end, none of this should really come as a surprise: the Leafs won the division and look like the heavy favourites in this matchup, at least on paper. But until they’re able to finally do the thing and actually win a playoff series, there will always be doubts and detractors. With this year’s unique divisional alignment, Toronto may have the easiest playoff path in the league – now they’ve just got to capitalize.
Stats from naturalstattrick.com and hockey-reference.com