2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs North Division preview: (4) Canadiens vs. (1) Maple Leafs

There aren’t many franchises in sports that win 13 championships and are called failures, but here we are with the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Their last Stanley Cup came in 1967. This was also the last time they reached the Stanley Cup Finals. 

Half a century later (with some change) and one of the National Hockey League’s most-historic franchises has brought the province of Ontario nothing but disappointment after disappointment. 

Maybe, just maybe, the Leafs can win their first playoff series since 2004. Yes, it’s been 17 years since Toronto reached the second round. In the last two decades, they’ve missed the playoffs 11 times and have lost in the first round four times. 

What could be an upside for Toronto is that they don’t have to face their dreaded enemies south of the border in the Boston Bruins. Since 2013, the Bruins have eliminated Toronto three times, but due to the change in playoff format for this season, they two franchises couldn’t meet until the semifinals. 

With that being said, Toronto’s shortcomings could hit a peak as they take on the Montreal Canadiens, a team building back into the upper echelon of the NHL ranks. 

Due to the North Division being the weakest of the four this season, it would only be another added failure to the long list for the Leafs over the last 55 years. 

I say this because the Leafs have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL and when they are in peak form, could beat a Cup favorite like the Colorado Avalanche, but on their off days, they look like the Buffalo Sabres. 

It’s safe to say that the Big Three of Mitch Marner, William Nylander and headliner Auston Matthews have to come through with their best hockey yet in their young careers. Marner led the team in points (67), while Matthews led the NHL in goals scored (41). 

Nylander only had 42 points on the season and will need to be more productive with a +/- of just 10, which was on the lower end for the team. 

John Tavares needs to assert himself as a main guy in the postseason. He had his opportunity with the New York Islanders previously and came up short with them. Now, with three franchise players around him, can turn it around and lead the franchise to a Cup run. 

They may not put up the numbers they did in their prime anymore, but no one can deny how vital Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds are to the franchise. When the main staple can’t be the backbone, these three make up for it with their leadership and experience. While he’s no aging veteran yet, add Jake Muzzin to this pool as well as he’s won a Stanley Cup previously and was one of the most effective players of the season with a +21 rating. 

Not only will the offense need to be as effective as they were in the regular season, but Jack Campbell will also need to be elite in the postseason. He pitched two shutouts in 22 starts with a 17-3 record and a 2.15 Goals Against Average. 

It’s as simple as this. If the Leafs play to their capabilities, they can win the Stanley Cup, but for them, it’s easier said than done. 

The Canadiens once again come into the playoffs with very little to lose and everything to gain. This could be their chance to cement fear to the rest of the league for years to come if they can stun Toronto. 

Outside of Corey Perry, Jeff Petry and Shea Weber, Montreal enters the postseason with their key contributors all aged 30 years old or younger. 

2014 Stanley Cup champion Tyler Toffoli led the Canadiens in points as he tallied 28 goals and 16 assists on the year. He was also one of the most-accurate marksmen in the league with a shooting percentage of 17.7. 

Petry was one of the best two-way defensemen this season with 12 goals and 30 assists. 

While scoring is good, and all, for Montreal, they were in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed and were bottom 10 in penalty kill at 78.5% (same percentage as Toronto, however) and nine players talled negative ratings. Toffoli’s rating was zero. 

The decisive area for this series will be which goaltender comes through to make the necessary plays to keep pucks out of the net. The advantage quickly goes to Campbell as Carey Price had one of the weakest seasons in his long and storied career. If he can’t meet Campbell in game-to-game performance, Toronto will take advantage and take wins of 4-2, 3-1, 5-3, somewhere within that range. 

All you have to ask of Toronto is to play well. This is one of the most-talented teams across the board that there’s been in quite a long time. They have all the tools to do the impossible for the franchise and simply win a series. I believe they get it done with ease, but, in reality, they will make it a lot harder for themselves than what it should be. 

Prediction: Maple Leafs in six

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