Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens

They’re here, after a truncated season and a schedule ravaged by a pandemic, they’re finally here. The Stanley Cup Playoffs, where legacies are forged, champions are crowned and if you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs, an opportunity to relive deep-rooted trauma stemming from early postseason exits. What, too soon?

The format of this year’s playoffs guarantees that a Canadian team will reach the league semi-finals at the very least, and represents the best opportunity a team from the 49th parallel will have to win the Stanley Cup in recent memory.

The journey to crown the kings of the North Division begins with a showdown between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, fierce historical rivals that have not faced off in post-season play since 1979, a year in which Margaret Thatcher became the prime minister of the United Kingdom. It’s been a while.

Seeing as someone who was born when the Leafs last won a series can now obtain a driver’s license in Ontario, it’s understandable that fans are apprehensive of the team’s chances to break the drought, even in a year where they finished atop the North division.

Although part of the allure of sporting competition is that the unthinkable can and will happen, Leafs fans can rest assured that the team is much better equipped to return to the 2nd round, although the Canadiens will not be a pushover by any means through their physically abrasive style.

Season Stats

All statistics are at 5-on-5 unless indicated otherwise.

Head-to-Head Comparison

Lineup Comparison

For this roster comparison, I used Dom Lusczysn’s roster value visualization except instead of using his Game Score Value Added metric, I substituted it with Evolving Hockey’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) metric which sums up a player’s total value in finishing, play-driving, defensive impacts, and the rate at which they take and draw penalties, among other things. A more thorough explanation can be found here.

Some pitfalls of using this metric is that since I am only using a player’s total for this current season, their performances from past seasons are ignored.

This is especially important when trying to evaluate a player’s single-year output in that their WAR value will be skewed by unsustainably high or low shooting percentages and by their deployment and usage. In other words, luck and circumstance.

A more sophisticated player value model would account for a player’s performance in previous years, as it may suggest that they will likely rebound to their normal output. However, this offers a rough evaluation of each team’s lineup come Game 1.

Offence

Toronto’s offensive firepower is well-documented and presumed Rocket Richard trophy winner Auston Matthews spearheads the battalion, leading the league in individual expected goals created in all situations, and capitalizing on those chances to the tune of 41 goals, a new career high and a rate that hasn’t been seen this century.

Outside of Matthews, the Leafs can rollout several other scoring options, with 4 other players (Marner, Tavares, Nylander, and Hyman) hitting 15 goals in this shortened season.

On the red side of central Canada, Montreal’s offence resembles more of collective approach, with Tyler Toffoli the only skater to have cracked 20 goals (28) on a squad that scored the 17th most goals in the league.

The Leafs and Canadiens represent two sides of the chance quality versus quantity debate when it comes to determining which is a better predictor of future success.

Montreal is one of the best 5-on-5 teams in the league, often controlling play through relentless forechecking and being quick to jump on the counterattack when given the opportunity. Their defensemen are not shy to jump into the play, and their forwards do not hesitate to test the opposing goalie from anywhere on the ice.

However, while the Canadiens often win the possession battle, the Leafs are much better at generating higher quality chances and convert on said chances at a better rate.

The health of Brendan Gallagher will determine how much offence the team can muster, as he consistently finds himself near the top of the league in creating scoring chances and best embodies the Canadiens offensive ethos.

That’s Gallagher allllllll the way in the top right corner.

His absence due to injury has played a part in Montreal’s recent slump, with his 1.3 individual expected goals per 60 minutes being the best rate in the NHL among skaters with at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5.

If he has not fully recovered from the injury which limited him to only 35 games this season, the Habs may be hard pressed to find offence elsewhere.

As such, Montreal’s trio of promising youngsters in Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Alexander Romanov will surprisingly start the series as healthy scratches, a questionable decision when less effective skaters have been left in the lineup of a team that has struggled to generate much offence.

Head coach Dominic Ducharme indicated that he is starting with veterans steeped in playoff experience and that they may draw back in eventually, but the opportunity cost for a team with little offence beyond their top two lines may be crippling if Toronto takes an early series lead.

Caufield in particular has given the Canadiens a much-needed spark, potting four goals in 10 appearances since signing his entry-level deal late in the season.

For Montreal to have a chance in this series, their primary objective must be to prevent Auston Matthews from waltzing into high danger chances, which is easier said than done.

Their strategy of choice will most likely be to deploy their top line of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, and Brendan Gallagher against Matthews whenever they have the opportunity as that line is outright dominant, with their goal share (1st), expected goal share (1st), and shot share (3rd) being unparalleled among lines with at least 200 minutes played at five-on-five.

Luckily for Toronto, their own line of Matthews-Marner-Hyman ranks right behind Montreal’s trio in those metrics, promising a very intriguing head-to-head battle of dominant 5-on-5 lines and one that may determine the result of this series.

While Montreal can roll four dependable forward lines, they lack true elite talent and Toronto can match them depth-wise making it unlikely that they find an advantage in this department.

Defence

In previous seasons, Toronto’s blue line and commitment or lack thereof to defence has been a frequent scapegoat of a team loaded with offensive weapons.

However, the addition of TJ Brodie on the first pair and the welcome emergence of Justin Holl as a legitimate top-four defensemen, the Leafs boast their most dependable defence corps in years and alarms no longer blare when Toronto’s defensemen handle the puck in their own zone or are swarmed opposing forwards.

The likely third pair of Rasmus Sandin and Zach Bogosian completes the lineup and should complement each other nicely as Sandin has taken on a more prominent role in transitioning the puck up the ice, and Bogosian has shown a penchant for making the safe, simple play while being responsible defensively which is all that you can ask of your bottom pair.

In fact, all three of Toronto’s most common defence pairs this season (Reilly-Brodie, Muzzin-Holl, and Dermott-Bogosian) posted an expected goals share of over 55%, giving head coach Sheldon Keefe the peace of mind to throw any of the pairs into important situations and get results.

Toronto has seen their defensive results improve drastically, with their ability to prevent shot attempts and to keep opponents out of dangerous areas both ranking in the top third of the league, making life much easier for their goaltenders.

For a Montreal team that already struggles to shoot from prime scoring areas, the Leafs will not make it any easier to get into better positions.

Montreal’s defence corps is led by Jeff Petry, who scored 10 goals this season and often showed off his ability to join the rush and give the team another option on the attack. With their forwards adept at controlling play but not finishing on chances, a good chunk of the scoring load will fall on Petry.

As with Toronto’s defence group, the Canadiens can deploy three steady pairs that will keep the puck and tilt the ice in their favour.

A large part of Montreal’s defensive strategy is to control possession and limit the number of chances that their opponent gets. They rank in the top third of the league in both expected goals and shots against per 60 minutes, and do not make it easy for other teams to overpower them.

Whether each team continues to maintain their focus on quantity over quality of chances will be interesting to follow.

Goalies

The goaltending situation in Toronto has been a carousel, with 5 different net minders suiting up at some point in 2021 for a variety of reasons including health and issues with consistency.

Jack Campbell’s historic run thrusted him into the starter’s role, especially after Frederik Andersen has struggled mightily this season and was forced to miss several months with an injury.

His dependable performances visibly buoyed the team and propelled their attack, confident that their net minder could shore up any of their missteps.

I can too often harp on the hard data aspect of hockey, but there is something to be said of knowing the goalie behind you can bail you out now and again. Not to be an amateur psychologist, but the Leafs often looked sullen and dejected when Andersen would let in a stinker in previous years.

The mental fortitude provided by Campbell’s stability should not go unnoticed. Doesn’t hurt that his teammates love him either.

Despite his success, Campbell’s lack of playoff experience and experiencing his own injury troubles earlier this season may be a point of caution for Toronto, as a goaltending implosion would be the most costly development in a short series.

However, Andersen’s recent playoff struggles should make the team hesitant to throw him into such a high leverage situation, which means that the net is Campbell’s for the foreseeable future. Unless Campbell’s play more resembles the hiccups from a month ago, I doubt that Andersen will see the ice for the duration of this playoff run.

His lack of playoff experience may be a point of tension but trying to guess how a goalie will perform can be a fool’s errand, and Campbell has shown enough consistency dating back to last season to assuage concerns.

For Dominic Ducharme, the most pivotal decision he may have to make is in goal, with Jake Allen outplaying Carey Price this season and stepping in admirably when Price went down with injury.

Price’s reputation with his peers precedes him, although it is not clear that he is at all close to level he demonstrated at the peak of his career. His recent playoff numbers have been much better than those he’s posted in the regular season, but his struggles this year coupled with a recent conditioning stint in the AHL suggest he may not be completely healthy heading into Game 1.

If he were to go with who is performing the best at this moment, Allen would be his guy. But, as I acknowledged earlier in this section, intangibles should not be cast aside, and Price’s impenetrability in the playoffs should hand him the reins to start.

One thing to note as this Twitter user points out, is that Campbell has been less effective than Price at stopping high danger chances. If Montreal can find a way to engineer more scoring chances around the slot and net front, they may stand a chance at overcoming the discrepancies in talent elsewhere in the lineup.

Special Teams

One of the biggest stories in Toronto is how the Leafs power play has dropped off a cliff after a torrid start to the year, at one point . With short playoff series extremely susceptible to rapid swings in momentum, a lacklustre power play can often spell disaster.

While it is definitely disconcerting that the team can often appear stationary on the man-advantage and have struggled to capitalize, their results indicate that they are generating chances at a rate that is top-three in the NHL.

With the presumed Rocket Richard Trophy winner in Auston Matthews and John Tavares as the triggermen on the man-advantage, it would not be shocking for their luck to turn and to see their conversion rate resemble that of their performance at the beginning of the season.

Current publicly available expected goal models are unable to capture variables such as a player’s pre-shot movement as well as how a puck made its way to the shooting location. Whether the shooter skated into the slot with the puck or if they received a pass across the slot for a one-timer, the expected goal value of that shot would be the same.

However, it is more difficult as a goalie to stop a one-timer than it is to challenge a shooter skating directly towards the net. This could be a potential explanation for why despite generating tons of scoring chances, the Leafs’ power play has gone cold.

They would do well to create more opportunities where the opposing goalie has less time to set up in his stance and locate the puck, as well as finding a less predictable outlet than the Marner-Matthews connection.

An insightful look into how Toronto can mix up their power play structure.

If Montreal has any hope to pull off an upset, its special teams will have to be much better than they have shown up to this point, with their rates of scoring chance generation on the power play and scoring chance prevention on the penalty kill both ranking in the bottom third of the league.

Staying out of the box will also be a critical factor in determining who gains the upper hand in this series, as Montreal, while feisty and pestering in their forechecking, have significant difficulties in keeping disciplined, ranking very close to the bottom in penalty differential.

The Canadiens often undisciplined play combined with their porous penalty kill may lead to regret about tempting the slumbering beast that is the Maple Leafs power play.

It should be noted that the rate at which penalties are called in the playoffs drastically decreases compared to the regular season, which may benefit Montreal in their attempt to physically antagonize the Leafs’ offensive stars.

The Verdict

With a history of memorable playoff collapses in their stead, Leafs fans can be forgiven for preemptively heading to the bomb shelters.

What is true this year that hasn’t always been the case with this core (save for last year’s Columbus debacle) is that they are the overwhelming favourite, and boast the series’ best player as well as more robust depth than the Canadiens up and down the lineup.

When the benches are shortened and stars are leaned on, possessing a true game breaker can be the key to success and Matthews is unlike any skater the Habs can throw on the ice.

However, Montreal’s chippy style will be sure to frustrate the Leafs in their attempt to impose their freewheeling style on play, and should be more effective in the playoffs when penalties are called much less frequently.

If vintage Carey Price re-emerges and Campbell falters in his first true test as a starter in the playoffs, the Leafs’ advantages in other areas of the ice won’t matter, as there isn’t much that the Leafs can do to prevent Montreal from turning the series on its head if their goaltending implodes.

Ultimately, the Leafs have been much better over the course of the season and especially so in their head-to-head matchups with the Candiens, and shouldn’t pose too much of a threat to Toronto’s chances of advancing to the second round for the first time since Usher’s “Yeah!” was top of the charts.

I’m calling the Leafs in five. Famous last words?

Main picture is from Flickr/ Rick Harris.

Statistics are taken from ESPN, Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Moneypuck and NHL.com.

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