Ranking Potential Canadiens First-Round Opponents in 2021 Playoffs

The Montreal Canadiens haven’t exactly clinched a playoff spot yet and it would be wrong for them to count their chickens before they’re hatched, at least in that one regard. However, there’s nothing stopping analysts from looking ahead to the postseason, even with everything as wide open as it is currently.

As things stand, the Canadiens could face any one of the three teams above them in the North Division standings. Not all prospective opponents are made equal, as one might imagine, though. So, who between the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets should the Habs want to face? Here they are ranked, from least preferable on paper to most:

3. Edmonton Oilers

Yes, up to this point in the schedule, the Canadiens have been able to handle the Oilers with relative ease. However, anyone thinking that taking on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl over an entire playoff series is a good idea hasn’t been paying attention. If you need a refresher, look back to the game between the two sides on April 19, when McDavid almost single-handedly turned a 1-0 third-period deficit into a 3-1 Oilers lead and eventual 4-1 win in the game’s final 10 minutes.

Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid
Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Ross D. Franklin)

Sure, the Canadiens are 5-2 against the Oilers so far. However the Habs haven’t had to face the likes of the Oilers and their two-headed monster over a period longer than two straight games this season. Containing them over the course of an entire round is most definitely a different animal.

To be clear, the Canadiens can undeniably come out on top in a series against the Oilers. There should be no doubt about that, considering the regular-season series between both teams. And the fact the Habs have won more games against them than lost and that they’re only ranked No. 3 on this list is a sign the Canadiens have a good shot at winning a round, generally speaking. However, basing the likelihood of the Canadiens beating a given opponent in the playoffs based on their season series is a fool’s errand. There are so many different factors to consider.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

At the risk of getting something I write taken out of context a la Josh Anderson by Toronto Sun columnist Michael Traikos, ranking the Maple Leafs ahead of the Oilers here is not an argument Auston Matthews is an easier opponent than McDavid.

I mean, while Matthews should be a legitimate Hart Memorial Trophy candidate in his own right, McDavid is nevertheless on the cusp of scoring 100 points in a 56-game season. So, in one sense, the argument would be a fair one.

However, even taking into account the arguably greater amount of weapons up front that the Maple Leafs have over the Oilers, the point is more so a testament to the nature of the rivalry between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs. So, while anything can happen in the playoffs, as per the Canadiens’ unofficial motto anyway, it’s much more so the case in a series between these two teams, who haven’t faced each other in the playoffs since 1979.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews – (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In that respect alone, Habs fans should hope for this series, from a sheer entertainment standpoint. The flipside is do Habs fans really want to see a scenario unfold in which the Maple Leafs make it to the second round for the first time since 2004 at their expense? Probably not.

Keep in mind, the Maple Leafs are the class of the North Division. There’s no disputing that. Even though they may very well be cursed in the playoffs (it was 4-1, remember?), the Habs would still be heavy underdogs. While the Habs tend to relish the role, it’s not one they should actively seek out or one for which they should wish. They should hope for an opponent against whom they match up well.

1. Winnipeg Jets

Admittedly, to a certain degree, this selection is in part a result of recency bias. The Canadiens just beat the Jets in impressive fashion, scoring four unanswered goals in a 5-3 comeback win to close out the month of April. Take that one win away and the respectable 3-3-3 record the Habs have against the Jets looks very different. Undeniably, prior to last Friday’s win, the Canadiens had only won two games against the Jets compared to six losses.

However, three of those losses came in overtime in games that unquestionably could have gone either way. And, while the Canadiens’ 3-6 three-on-three overtime record and 1-3 shootout record each leave something to be desired, there are no tie-breaking gimmicks come the playoffs.

True, the Jets are solid up front and have reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Connor Hellebuyck in net. However, both Mike Smith of the Oilers and (projected-starter) Jack Campbell of the Leafs have been more impressive statistically speaking this season. Plus, the Jets’ defense has performed largely as expected, i.e., not well.

Connor Hellebuyck Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck – (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Overall, are the Jets better than the Habs? Quite possibly, at least in a vacuum anyway. However, having lost seven in a row, the Jets aren’t exactly peaking at the right time.

Of course, it’s almost a moot point, as the only way the two teams meet in the first round is if the bottom completely falls out of the Oilers’ play and they fall from second place to fourth despite their five-point lead over the Jets heading into action Monday night. So, the best situation for the Canadiens is objectively the unlikeliest.

However, no one can honestly deny the resulting Oilers-Leafs series in Round 1 would be worth the soul of whoever makes that deal with the Devil. From the Habs’ perspective, they would be the clear beneficiaries of a favorable matchup in such a scenario, giving them undeniably their best chance at reaching Round 2. In the process, they would be building on last season’s first-round finish, successfully making this season, despite its many ups and many (more) downs, a success.

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