It was 1979 the last time the Montreal Canadiens played the Toronto Maple Leafs in the National Hockey League playoffs. The Canadiens beat the Leafs in the quarter finals on their way to the Stanley Cup championship, something many Leaf fans will discount as being an insignificant 42-year-old fact with little impact on today’s game. I have to believe that if that was true, if discounting history had little relevance on today’s game, we wouldn’t celebrate the past with banners, honour nights, video montages, and game ambassadors. While there may not be members of these teams that were even born during that 1979 series, the reality is that both teams are probably starting the mental game before the physical game dance and it’s not just the teams, but that fans too, even if they weren’t around since the first time these two teams met back on December 26, 1917.
So, what kind of series are we in for?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have to overcome some playoff demons that have nothing to do with the Montreal Canadiens. They’ve lost some questionable playoff series in recent years, some in the 7th game and 3rd period that will forever be etched in Twitterverse by anti-fans who love to use crumbs like that to unsettle the faithful. History aside, the Maple Leafs went out and added some experience that could settle the youth core when those unimaginable meltdowns happen by adding Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and Nick Foligno, while also addressing some aggressive, but not quite truculent aspects to their game. On the back end, they mended the net with the addition of Rittich while Campbell holds the fort with achievement and honour in the absence of main-stay Anderson. This team doesn’t have a scoring problem being the 6th best offense and their defense has been fairly consistent all season allowing the 6th fewest goals, for a 4th best goal differential this season. They also have a balanced home and road record, although the influence of that is questionable in a COVID-19 in-game fan-less league. That being said, they still have some in-game lapses as a team and while their goalie Campbell has set records, he needs his defense to stay consistent if he’s carrying the playoff load between the pipes. The goalie position might be their biggest weakness this playoff, followed by a core group of skilled talent that can crumble under physical pressure.
The Montreal Canadiens went into this season full steam on the heels of their surprise win performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins and a questionable loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on the receiving end of some suspect injury-resulting play in the 2020 playoffs. They added some veteran experience in Corey Perry, Eric Staal, and the seldom used Michael Frolik. They also addressed their back-up goalie situation in the off-season with Jake Allen who has largely done what he has needed to do, when Carey Price went down with injuries. Aside from some momentary mental lapses at the wrong time that let teams back into the game, Allen has been a fairly consistent option. The Canadiens goalie situation really exposes how much better they are with Price than without as his in-game up-ice passes and vision remain superior, providing an additional edge, even though he receives some unfair criticism for losses more often than not beyond his control. The defense on this team hasn’t quite gelled this season, after getting off to a good start and the late additions of Gustafsson and Merrill while cutting loose the younger under-performing Mete are each good depth moves, but maybe also short-term panic moves that will only be good if the team wins. If not for the off-season addition of Josh Anderson (traded for Max Domi, who was traded for Alex Galchenyuk- who now plays for the Leafs) and Tyler Toffoli who make up almost 30% of the team’s offense this season, which is 17th best in front of a defense that is 14th worst and a minus 9 goal differential, where would they be? There is a ton of inconsistency across this team’s game. If they’re going to win this series, and it is a winnable series, the Canadiens will have to play the Leafs with wave after wave of physical play to knock their more skilled talent off the puck and their game without sustaining their own injuries doing it. When and if that happens, the Canadiens will need to capitalize on the time and space it affords them. To do that, a few things have to happen. The veteran players will need to be the support and fillers they were meant to be, the 2020 Kotkaniemi will need to show up, Weber and Petry need to be regular game factors, Brendan Gallagher needs to bring his leadership sandpaper, and Carey Price will need to be the best goalie in the world. It sounds like a lot of stars need to align, but the playoffs are a different season.
If I was going with overall talent consistency this season, I’d take the Leafs in 5. If I was going with passion and history (and yes, history matters), I’d take the Canadiens in 7.
The best part of this series is that those friends on opposing sides of the cheering lines have an opportunity to come together during a time when any reason to laugh, cheer, celebrate, and call each other is more important than ever as we find ways to get through this pandemic. I hope the players, and everyone involved with the game are safe as I look forward to the off-ice debates and funny memes to ensue.
Now, drop the puck!
This is an opinion article by Guido Piraino of The Monthly Social Podcast. It may also be heard on The Path Radio Mix Online. You can read other opinion articles on the blog page. For sports content, please consider The Coach's Call YouTube Podcast.