The Montréal Canadiens’ most recent victory made their playoff future a little clearer. With that win, the Canadiens now have 57 points to the Calgary Flames’ 47 with eight games remaining on the schedule. The Habs’ playoff probability increased, which means they’re now at least a 70 percent lock to play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The potential series would be the first time the Forever Rivals have played in a playoff series since 1979 and could signal a rebirth of what many consider to be the greatest rivalry in NHL history.
How do the Canadiens measure up to the Maple Leafs in advance of their likely matchup?
The Canadiens’ remaining schedule has them playing the Maple Leafs two more times. In eight previous games, the Canadiens hold a record of 3-4-1, allowing at least three goals in each of the losses. The early games in the season series demonstrated some of the Canadiens’ individual weaknesses, heavily relying on the scoring touches of Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson to keep them in the games for as long as possible. The Maple Leafs looked unstoppable for much of that same period, with forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner powering the high-octane offence.
The first Habs’ victory over the Maple Leafs ended the Leafs’ then-win streak at four games, but the Canadiens couldn’t stop Matthews from extending his point streak to 12 in a row. Their second halted the record-setting pace of goaltender Jack Campbell and saw previously maligned players like Tomas Tatar bust out of slumps. Despite the overall record against the Leafs this season, the Habs’ victories over them came at crucial junctures and prove that they can hang tough when it matters.
Although the Leafs currently sit fifth in the league standings and first in the Scotia North Division (nine points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers), their lofty perch hides some concerning numbers. Their penalty kill ranks 26th in the league at 76.6 percent, down from last season when it ranked 21st at 77.7 percent. They’ve also had struggles with goaltending in shorthanded situations – Frederik Andersen owned a measly .882 save percentage and Jack Campbell an ugly .833 – that distract from how good they can be at their best.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Canadiens compare well to the Maple Leafs in all relevant team categories. The Canadiens power play percentage sits at 20.4 percent to the Leafs’ 21.6 percent, and their penalty kill is slightly better than their traditional rivals, 77.7 percent to 76.7 percent. On a more detailed level, the April 28 Leafs-Canadiens game is a good indicator of how well the two teams compare. Although the Canadiens lost the game 4-1, the numbers tell a different story. At even strength, the Canadiens controlled 55.26 percent of shot attempts and had significantly more scoring chances, notching 27 to the Leafs’ 16. If it weren’t for the Canadiens’ unforced errors, the game would’ve been much closer than it was.
Grab your necessities and find shelter immediately. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a scored a power play goal.— Anthony Bruno (@AnthonyMBruno) April 19, 2021
Additionally, the Maple Leafs’ recent run of utterly disastrous play with the man advantage means that the Canadiens can get away with taking penalties sometimes. As of April 16, the Maple Leafs were 1 for their last 42 on the power play, an abysmal 2.4 percent. It seems their opponents have quite easily figured out their tendencies and have clogged the middle of the defensive zone. The Canadiens are perfectly capable of doing just that, with the likes of Shea Weber and Joel Edmundson patrolling the back end and a solid two-way forward like Paul Byron roaming near the defensive blue line. Taking penalties isn’t dangerous when the opponent can’t score on the powerplay.
Although calmed down more so recently, the carousel of goaltenders that the Maple Leafs have employed in past weeks (David Rittich, Michael Hutchinson, Campbell) would likely mean that a starting netminder for the playoffs is potentially undecided. Andersen has missed a significant amount of time with a lower-body injury, and his recent return to full practice indicates his desire to reclaim his lost turf. Before his comeback to practice, Andersen said,
“There are some stressful positions my body gets into and they created some problems. I reached a point where I just didn’t feel confident in the net. I wasn’t being as aggressive as I needed to. As a player, you don’t want to admit to that, or say ‘stop’ yourself. It was going on maybe a bit too long. I was happy they got (the problems) caught and got fixed before they got any worse. I’m just relieved it’s going in the right direction. I’m just happy to be back out with the guys.” Maple Leafs’ goaltender Frederik Andersen on his recent play (from “Maple Leafs’ Goalie Andersen Intends to Prove His Worth” Lance Hornby. Toronto Sun. 26/04/21).
The Canadiens lack this same struggle – they’re simply resting Carey Price and waiting for his return – and the potential for controversy on the part of the Leafs’ crease means that goaltending dominance is not assured, as it was believed to be earlier in the year. The Habs can capitalize on this inconsistency and potentially turn it into a first-round victory.
Playoff hockey between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs is something the league and fans have been clamouring over for over 40 years. It harkens back to the days of old-time hockey and legendary players like Dave Keon and Ken Dryden. Although the Leafs have been one of the most unstoppable teams this season, there are areas that indicate a lower-seeded Canadiens team can push them to the brink and even eliminate them.