For someone who’s grown up in Toronto his whole life as a passionate Montreal Canadiens fan, you can imagine the amount of ridicule and torment I’d get on a constant basis from my friends. I remember many times as a child going to school on jersey days (in a red Canadiens jersey) only to hear my buddies ask me questions such as “Weren’t you born in Toronto?” and “Why on earth would you like the Canadiens?” to which I always reminded them: my dad grew up in the heart of Montreal, loving the bleu blanc et rouge; I really had no choice.
For years I dreamt of a seven-game playoff series between the two Original Six teams, but every time the two teams were in the playoffs they’d never end up facing each other. Now for the first time in my life, I am going to be able to see the 24-time Stanley Cup champions’ take on the favored Maple Leafs.
As it’s been well documented, the last time the Canadiens and Maple Leafs engaged in a best-of-seven series was in 1979, and Montreal throttled Toronto in four games. Stalwarts like Lanny McDonald and Guy Lafleur were playing, and it was thirteen years before I was even born. To say that I’ve been craving for Montreal and Toronto to play in a playoff series would be a gross understatement.
Which brings us to present day…
Toronto and Montreal played in the all-Canadian division this year aka the North Division. The Habs and Leafs met 10 times during the regular season with the latter taking seven of the games. Down the stretch, the Canadiens were bitten by a slew of key injuries and forced to play a ton of games in just over a month. They were beaten down and needed a break; thankfully due to the scheduling of the playoffs, the Canadiens were granted a week off which allowed players like Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber, and most importantly Carey Price to get healthy.
The Maple Leafs are led by Rocket Richard winner Auston Matthews who scored 41 goals in just 56 games. What’s even more impressive is that his linemate Mitch Marner assisted on each of those 41 goals, finishing with a team lead of 67 points. The Leafs will get back Zach Hyman who missed the last few weeks of the regular season with an injury, and goaltender Frederik Andersen will also return, but he will not be tending the pipes (at least for Game 1). That decision was made by head coach Sheldon Keefe, who decided to go with the hot hand in Jack Campbell. Campbell stepped up big for the Maple Leafs this season finishing with a 17-3-2 record and an impressive 2.13 Goals Against Average (GAA).
This is a Toronto team that’s built to win in the playoffs. Before the season started, they brought in grit and playoff experience in Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and T.J. Brodie. They also added Nick Foligno right before the trade deadline. The Maple Leafs finished off a remarkable season with 35 wins and 77 points over the 56 games and head into Thursday’s opening game of the playoffs as the clear favorite to come out of the North Division. However, this is a Toronto squad that’s not advanced past the first round of the playoff since 2004. They failed to get past the Columbus Blue Jackets in the play-in tournament last year and, before that, also lost two-opening round series to the Boston Bruins and one to the Washington Capitals. They are hopeful to get the monkey off their back and advance past the first round.
The Canadiens on the other hand, started off the season on fire. The team looked every bit of what general manager Marc Bergevin hoped for after the off-season. He traded Max Domi for young, speedy, and athletic forward Josh Anderson. He brought in players with cup rings in Tyler Toffoli who scored a team-high 28 goals, Jake Allen who would end up playing more games than Carey Price and Joel Edmundson to stabilize the defense. Following their quick start to the season, things started to unravel fast for the Canadiens. They fired head coach Claude Julien in mid-February and assistant head coach Kirk Muller. Dominique Ducharme took over as the interim head coach and led the Canadiens to the fourth and final playoff spot in the North.
They leaned heavily on Jeff Petry who at the early stages of the season was a shoo-in for a Norris candidate but faltered down the stretch. The Canadiens struggled to score goals and then were hit hard by COVID-19. While the only player to test positive was Joel Armia, the team was forced to miss a full week of games. They played 22 games in 37 days and banked on their young players to step up. Nick Suzuki remained one of their top forwards all season long, and down the stretch when the Canadiens were fighting and clawing for points, he stepped up. However, even with the team calling up of Cole Caufield was nice to see, he scored four goals in just ten games including two overtime winners. Jesperi Kotkaniemi took a step pack in his progression, Alex Romanov has some signs of brilliance and sometimes he felt lost. None of those three players are scheduled to play in Game 1. Instead, they will suit up veterans Eric Staal, John Merrill, and Corey Perry in their place.
At the end of the day, the Canadiens will need a healthy Carey Price to get past the first round. In the last few playoff series Price has been incredible with an impressive .936 save percentage and is one of a handful of goalies in the league that can literally steal a series – just look back at what he did against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the bubble. Price played two periods for the Laval Rockets on Monday after sitting out the last three weeks with a concussion and there’s no word if he will get the start over Jake Allen in Game 1, but if he does you can expect him to be vintage Price.
I have been dreaming of a Canadiens and Leafs playoff matchup because win or lose, I can finally get an answer as to who really is the better team. I am completely biased here but I am taking the Canadiens to upset the Maple Leafs in 7 games.