Fans and media are funny. Well, not so much as in laughing funny, but funny as in weird. If you listen to Leafs’ fans, Toronto media, and even some Habs’ fans and media covering Montreal, the teams shouldn’t even bother playing that series as it’s so one-sided in Toronto’s favour. Every single year, it’s the year of the Maple Leafs, the year they will break through their slump of having not won a playoffs’ series since 2004. Every year, fans take their chairs along the parade route, although few of their fans know where it is as they weren’t born the last time they won it back in 1967. And every year, they crawl back into their hole crying… until next year. Yet every single year, there are huge upsets. “Oh but this year is different!” Again, same song, every year. Every year, they claim that this time, it’s different. It’s the blind hope.
One would have to be blind not to see that Toronto is heavy favourite when looking at stats and the season series between the two teams alone. And that’s what fans and media are basing their strong beliefs on. Doing so isn’t taking everything into consideration, however. While fans and media predict an easy series in favour of the Leafs, rest assured that the players don’t think that. But let’s play along with their beliefs, at least to start with.
The Maple Leafs finished first in the North – or Canadian – division (I refuse to commercialize division by naming companies) with 77 points, five ahead of the Edmonton Oilers in second place. They are sixth in the NHL in goals for per game at 3.32 and seventh with 2.64 goals against per game. Their power play is ranked 16th (20%) and they are 23rd with a 78.5% success rate on the penalty kill.
The Habs finished with 59 points. With 2.82 goals for per game, they rank 17th in that category and 18th in goals against per game at 2.95. With a success rate of 18.2%, they are 18th on the power play and 22nd on the penalty kill at 78.5%.
The Canadiens were 3-6-1 against the Leafs this season, being outscored 34-25. If you want to know more about the two teams regular season, just listen to the media and they’ll fill you ear about it until you get a headache.
Even playing field
The last time the two teams met, the Canadiens were without some of their biggest weapons at every position. In fact, they were without their captain and their two assistant-captains. There was no Carey Price, no Shea Weber, no Brendan Gallagher, no Phillip Danault, no Jonathan Drouin and no Paul Byron. And before someone tries to list who was missing for the Leafs, you have to realize that those are not Toronto’s top players. The Habs’ missing were and they rely heavily on them. Without the players missing for the Leafs, they still had Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander and Rielly.
Further, the Habs were playing their fourth game in six nights, and their 23rd game in just 40 days! The Leafs? It was their second game in five days. Their sixth game in 14 days. It was the Habs’ sixth game in nine days! In other words, one team was extremely fatigued and was missing key players, the other was well rested. It won’t be the case when come playoffs. It will be an even playing field.
“We just played Montreal four times so we know what to expect there in that sense. Of course we know their roster will look different and they’ll be a much more rested team when we see them again.” ~ Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach
Last but not least, Dominique Ducharme has had very little practice time with his team due to that crazy schedule. He was thrown in there mid-season, trying to teach his system on the fly, through videos. He now has a week to instate and work on system-specific drills and will also have time to figure out ways to slow down Matthews and Marner. Definitely not the same situation as it was in the regular season.
Playoffs are a new season
So throw all of the data mentioned above out the window. The playoffs are a brand new season and while the odds don’t seem to be in favour of the Canadiens, having a level playing field will be an advantage for Montreal. While the Leafs have added Simmonds, Foligno and Bogosian (on IR), they are no match with the physicality the Canadiens will bring. That Montreal defense may not be the most mobile, but when you have to go through and battle with Weber, Chiarot, Petry, Edmundson and Romanov, you better keep your head up and be ready to get bruised up along the way.
Usually, the NHL referees let the players play during the playoffs so there are much fewer penalties being called. While I don’t trust the men in stripes one bit due to their extreme incompetence, this could play in Montreal’s favour. It will be a series for Foligno and Simmonds but if the Leafs have to rely on them, they will be severely outmatched.
Before even looking, I knew that the Canadiens were a much more physical team than the Leafs but when I did this research, I was shocked to see by how much. Adding Wayne Simmonds and Nick Foligno helped the Leafs, but neither plays top minutes.
And it’s even more telling when you look at the ice time distribution on both teams. For example, off the most utilized players by Keefe, all but one is a physical player and that’s Jake Muzzin. Off the players on both teams playing 16 minutes or more, only Muzzin, Zach Hyman and Justin Holl are more physical than… Jonathan Drouin! Still with the 16+ minutes players, Toronto has six of the seven least physical players on both teams with only Brett Kulak in the middle of that pack. Matthews, Tavares, Rielly, Brodie, Marner and Nylander are all less physical than Drouin. Off that same group, the Habs have 10 of the top 13 most physical players. So the Leafs physical players are, for the most part, not playing a lot contrarily to the Canadiens.
What this means is that for the most part, the Leafs’ most utilized players would get hit often while the Canadiens’ players are likely to be at the receiving end of hits only when the least utilized Leafs are on the ice. In the playoffs physical reality, that’s a huge difference. The Maple Leafs’ top players, for the most part, shy away from physical play while the Canadiens welcome it as part of their DNA. And that’s not counting the crosschecks and hits away from the play that Matthews cries about.
Habs game plan
If I’m Ducharme, my game plan is rather easy. Aside from X’s and O’s to keep Marner and Matthews off the scoresheet, you bring it to the Leafs physically and hit them any chance you get. Those hits will make them get rid of the puck sooner than they would like, creating turnovers and generating offense for the Habs. Further, those hits will take their toll on them in a 7-game series. That’s the same strategy used by Boston and Columbus in prior years to eliminate Toronto.
Matthews is a big body who is hard to knock off the puck. You still hit him but the real target should be, in my opinion, Mitch Marner. Let’s face it, he’s as far as it gets from being Gallagher tough and if you treat him the same way opponents treat the feisty Habs’ winger, he will either be a lesser factor, or he’ll get hurt. Marner is a key reason for Matthews’ success as his set-up man and if he’s off, chances are that you will limit the NHL’s top goals’ scorer as well.
Lastly, you keep your fingers crossed that the series isn’t decided by the NHL’s incompetent referees. Expecting them to be good is a pipe dream. Hoping that they don’t play a role for one team or another should be a somewhat realistic expectation. But with a league that turns a blind eye on its biggest issue, we can expect some inconsistent, even atrocious refereeing in this and all other series. If only they reverted back to the one-referee system and got rid of half those incompetents… but I regress. Go Habs Go!