Make it nine straight playoff victories for the Montreal Canadiens over the Toronto Maple Leafs. With their 2-1 win in Game 1, the Habs got off on the right foot against the Leafs in their first-round series in 2020-21, after sweeping them back in 1977-78 and 1978-79, the last series between the two teams 42 years ago.
While no one expects that dominance to continue, it’s fair to say the Canadiens now have a chance this series, when most analysts failed to give the Habs one, like at all. Regardless, however important the victory is to the Canadiens’ hopes to call this season a success with a first-round victory, it was (justifiably) overshadowed by an ugly on-ice incident: the John Tavares injury. Here are the key takeaways from Game 1, from the Canadiens’ perspective:
3. Perry Answers Bell
The outcome of the series will largely depend on how the Maple Leafs fare without John Tavares, After taking what was by all accounts an inadvertent knee to the head by Corey Perry in the first period, Tavares was taken to hospital, where early signs were positive.
Sure, Tavares is a big contributor to the team’s offense, arguably an underrated part of it, with 50 points this season as its third-leading scorer. However, the Leafs can conceivably rally around the hypothetical loss instead. Regardless, it would be simply about winning for Tavares instead of beating the Canadiens for him out of revenge.
After all Perry answered the proverbial bell by fighting immediately afterward. While normally that might not ease tensions all that much considering the seriousness of the injury, the Leaf he fought, Nick Foligno, acknowledged the injury was an accident.
So, for all intents and purposes, there is only one dark cloud hanging over this series, Tavares’ wellbeing, instead of two (the Leafs having to chase Perry around). Of course, it all brings into question why Perry had to be policed in the first place as well as underlying hockey culture as a result.
Still, the notion that the two teams can now move on is arguably easier said than done. After the injury, the Canadiens were understandably able to find their legs more than the Leafs, who seemed understandably shaken to a greater extent. For Game 2, the Habs should expect a different Leafs team, one with more resolve and scoring ability in spite of Tavares’ injury.
2. Leafs Play with Fire, Get Burned by Canadiens Penalty Instead
Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron played the hero of Game 1, with a beautiful goal that came shorthanded. It was the deciding factor in Game 1, but discipline will potentially end up playing a bigger role by the time the series is said and done, for both teams.
For their part, the Leafs took three delay-of-game penalties, five penalties overall, excluding Foligno’s for fighting, and were lucky to not get burnt. In contrast, the Canadiens took four and arguably just ran into a team with a struggling power play. It almost goes without saying, but the Canadiens can’t count on scoring a shorthanded goal each game and can’t risk giving the Maple Leafs too many opportunities to get their sixth-ranked offense clicking on the man advantage.
The good news is the Habs’ lack of discipline is inherently controllable. Case in point, early in March soon after head coach Dominique Ducharme had been hired, the Canadiens had a league-worst penalty differential of -18, a phenomenon that had become systemic under predecessor Claude Julien, The remainder of the season, they rose to sixth-worst with an overall differential of -17, which means the rest of the way the Habs had one of +1.
Technically, that +1 differential held true in Game 1, but the Canadiens still took largely avoidable penalties like Ben Chiarot getting two minutes for retaliating against Auston Matthews. So, the bad new is this: the Leafs are unlikely to take three over-the-glass penalties the remainder of the series let alone in a single game to even the odds. The Canadiens need to take their lack of discipline into their own hands.
1. Price Is (All) Right
There was legitimate concern as to which Carey Price would show up against the Leafs. Last postseason’s version, who led the league with a 1.78 goals-against average and posted a second-ranked .936 save percentage? Or the one who, in spite of good five-on-five numbers this season, posted a mediocre .901 save percentage overall this season? Who just allowed two goals on 15 shots on an American Hockey League conditioning assignment?
Needless to say, Price seemed settled in and comfortable against the Leafs, which should put Habs fans at ease. While Price’s respectable career .918 save percentage in the playoffs is misleading, without him ever having won a game past Round 2, he nevertheless has had statistically solid postseasons. Game 1 was a sign this could be the start of another… but only a start.
The Canadiens as a whole can’t afford to rest on their laurels and assume everything is okay after a single victory. There are obviously things on which they need to work (see Point 2 above, for example). Thankfully, Ducharme is aware, at least saying as much in post-game comments: “For sure, we want to take those [power-play] opportunities and make them pay… There were a lot of things we can do better and we’ll address that tomorrow.”
Game 2 is set for Saturday night at 7:00 pm Eastern. The Canadiens will aim to take two-game lead on the road before heading home. That hypothetical outcome, in addition to an eventual Habs series win, is at least a possibility now, which is more than most assumed before Game 1.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.