The Montreal Canadiens have booked their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993, defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in six games. They are set to take on the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
For the city of Montreal and their fan base, it’s a joyous celebration 28 years in the making. For the Maple Leafs, their first round series loss to the Canadiens in seven games continues to sting in a year where it was the best chance for them to get to the Cup Final.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Maple Leafs led the series in shot attempts (Corsi For), scoring chances for and high danger chances for. Yet, it was the defensive-minded nature and quick transitional game of the Canadiens that was the difference maker. With that, there are a few things they can learn from their first round opponent as the Canadiens prepare for the Stanley Cup.
If there’s one thing that the Canadiens succeeded in where the Maple Leafs continued to falter, it’s facing and overcoming adversity. They’ve been counted out numerous times; in their first round matchup, their second round sweep over the Winnipeg Jets and negating the high flying offense of the Golden Knights.
Despite not having any star-studded talent like their first three opponents, the Canadiens dug deep and managed to play the kind of hockey where they grind out games to win. Their young core of Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield shined at critical moments for them during the playoffs.
Head coach Dominique Ducharme hasn’t coached since Game 2 of the semi-finals after he tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the rest of the series with the Golden Knights. No matter what was thrown in their way, the Canadiens powered through and made life difficult for their opponent. They continued to gain poise and character and deserve to be in the spot they’re in.
The Maple Leafs faced their own adversity and had a chance to overcome past failures by closing this series. However, they failed to do so. When captain John Tavares sustained a serious concussion in their opening game of the playoffs, the Maple Leafs rallied with three straight dominant performances that pushed the Canadiens to the brink of elimination. The back-to-back wins in Games 3 and 4 were critical for them to have a strangle hold on the series.
And that’s when things started to collapse.
Jake Muzzin managed to tie the game with two goals in Game 5 and Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie looked to have given the Maple Leafs life in Game 6. Those comebacks would’ve given any team the motivation and confidence to end things right then and there. Instead, the Maple Leafs became their own worst enemy again, with two costly giveaways leading to the game-winning goals. Whenever something comes across the Maple Leafs path where they have to dig deep and overcome an obstacle, they panic and crack under pressure.
They didn’t have an answer when they faced a push back, yet during the regular season, they showed that they were able to come back and play with the intensity after a loss just like the Canadiens did.
We could ask: What if Tavares played? What if Alex Galchenyuk and Travis Dermott didn’t turn the puck over? What if Muzzin didn’t get injured in Game 6? Those questions are irrelevant; they didn’t get the job done when they needed to as they had numerous chances to overcome obstacles. How other teams are able to succeed in these kinds of situations and not the Maple Leafs is baffling. With the amount of talent on this team, they’re shouldn’t be this much talk about concern or that they don’t care.
After their series loss, Mitch Marner looked very disappointed with how things turned out given the regular season success they had as the number one seed in the North Division. I’ve stated multiple times that this one is on the players and it’s up to them to decide how many times they’re tired of squandering opportunities like this. Could this be a turning point for him and the rest of the core?
Made Life Difficult for Opposition
Many are pointing to the stellar play of Carey Price as the reason for the Canadiens success for getting to this point. While that is very true, there’s more to it than just the play of one of the top goaltenders in the league. They were able to play and execute a strong strategy that caught the best offensive teams off guard.
The Canadiens have been dominant on rush chances and provided a strong counter attack from their defense, not just in their series win over the Golden Knights but throughout the playoffs. That was what made them successful in creating a game plan to counter the offense of the three superior teams. The Maple Leafs managed to stop their transitional game, but the Canadiens managed to find their game plan when they needed to.
From Game 1 against the Maple Leafs, I noticed how dangerous the Canadiens were in transitioning from defense to offence. They would clog up the middle of the ice keeping everything to the outside and giving up very little space to work with. Which is why the Maple Leafs had trouble in the elimination games where they had a hard time sustaining any kind of pressure in the offensive zone. When they did break through, Price was there to be the last line of defense.
By being active defensively, they anticipated plays and smothered the opposition. This ended up hurting the opposition in a big way. A prime example is this short-handed goal from Paul Byron.
Even though the Maple Leafs power play struggled greatly against the Canadiens (same with the Golden Knights), they managed to win puck battles, be in position to intercept plays and move the play up quickly for a successful counter attack. Suzuki’s game-winning goal in Game 5, Kotkaniemi’s winner in Game 6 and Brendan Gallagher’s 1-0 goal in Game 7 are all a result of being in the right spot, finding the right time to jump in and take advantage of the chance.
They made life miserable for the Maple Leafs’ star players as their four lines played and executed the same game plan every shift.
The Canadiens transitional play was the difference maker and the Maple Leafs, as gifted as they are, lacked that aspect. While they drastically improved defensively– finishing in the top-10 in goals against per game with 2.64 in the regular season– they struggled with their decisions, zone entries leading to turnovers and rush chances against and the inability to match that same kind of pressure.
Find the Killer Instinct
There’s no doubt that the Maple Leafs ooze offensive talent. They have the speed and skill, but that that aggressive mindset is where the Canadiens also bested them. Players like Byron Joel Armia, and Corey Perry all had that mentality. A highflying, offensive attack was the focus for some time before bringing in players like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. It was a sweep against the Columbus Blue Jackets where things started to change.
The commitment and killer instinct continues to lack, as it’s something that needs to be addressed in the offseason. Could the loss to the Canadiens be their wake up call that they need just like the Lightning and their sweep against the Blue Jackets?
Both head coach Sheldon Keefe and president Brendan Shanahan alluded to the killer instinct not being present. This is something that needs to be addressed. They need players that have that “it” factor– playing with intensity but also manage gain possession of the puck.
That can be the difference between success and failure. The Canadiens found it and haven’t looked back since. The Lightning have had it for the past few seasons, a reason why they’re up for back-to-back championships. Even then, it took a while for them to find playoff success.
If any of the Maple Leafs players were watching the Canadiens after their playoff series loss, this is the kind of hockey that they should be playing. They have the skill, but the will, drive and motivation still lacks. That is why the Canadiens are battling for the Stanley Cup.