Damien Cox: Canadiens no pushovers if playoff dream date with Leafs plays out
|Toronto Star 08 Feb 2019 at 16:44|
The Maple Leafs and Canadiens, after all, haven’t met in the post-season for 40 years. That’s a considerable walk in the wilderness by biblical standards, and certainly by the historical standards of a hockey league that still likes to tout the Montreal-Toronto rivalry as one of its most important.
The acquisition of Max Domi from Arizona has been a major plus for the Montreal Canadiens in a bounce-back campaign. (Claus Andersen / Getty Images)
So sure, it’s OK to imagine the possibilities if they finally run into each other for a best-of-seven set this April. Or May.
But from a Toronto perspective, don’t get excited about that because you think this would be a considerably softer touch than other playoff matchups.
You can no longer say with much conviction that’s the case.
Leafs loyalists can fear Boston as a first-round opponent, and for good reason, but it’s not clear at all that Montreal would be easier to deal with. The Leafs would be favoured against the Habs if they were to meet in the playoffs, but not by much and not by nearly the extent most would have imagined back in October.
The Leafs are basically as good as they were last season, perhaps slightly better because of their recent play and the impact of newly acquired defenceman Jake Muzzin. During January, Mike Babcock’s crew struggled to find its footing, and it’s taken a series of home games — mostly against lesser opponents — to regain some momentum.
While the Leafs may or may not be better than last season, the Habs are a lot better. Miles and miles better than last season when they managed only 71 points and were the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference. Montreal has almost matched that point total this season after only 55 games and has joined the Leafs, Flames and Jets as Canadian-based clubs ranked in the top eight of the 31-team NHL this season.
The influx of elite stars to Canadian clubs through the draft in recent years has drastically improved the possibility that, some time in the very near future, the Stanley Cup drought in the Great White North will come to an end. But until the past month, the Canadiens would not have been considered among the likeliest teams to be the next Cup champion from Canada.
Now? Well, with Shea Weber and Carey Price back playing at the level they once did, it’s hard to dismiss the Habs out of hand any more. The roster seems to be lacking in certain areas, but with only one regulation loss in their last 10 games, the surging Canadiens have found ways to make their strengths more meaningful than their weaknesses these days.
The decision by Geoff Molson to retain GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien in the interests of stability seems to have paid off. Unlike Edmonton, the Canadiens wholeheartedly embraced the new speed emphasis of the NHL and got notably faster over the off-season. When Montreal knocked off Edmonton in overtime last Sunday, it was because two of the three Habs on the ice at the decisive moment were much faster than two of the three Oilers.
That said, without Weber — nine goals since returning Nov. 27 — and Price returning to form, all that improved team speed probably wouldn’t have worked out quite so well.
We’ll find out Saturday night in Montreal exactly how close the Leafs and Habs have become competitively, one of the more noteworthy encounters between the two ancient franchises in years.
It was way back in 1979 that the Habs and Leafs last met in the playoffs, with the Canadiens sweeping the series. The final two games were decided in double OT and OT, and while Montreal went on to with the Cup, that setback ended Roger Neilson’s tenure as head coach in Toronto and began a particularly dark period in which the Leafs did not post a winning record for 13 consecutive seasons.
The decision to shift the Leafs from the Wales Conference to the Campbell Conference in 1981 effectively eliminated any chance they would meet Montreal in the playoffs, at least until 1993 when the Leafs came within one game of defeating Los Angeles and colliding with the Habs in the Cup final.
Since then, with the Leafs back in the same conference as Montreal since 1998, there have been opportunities for a playoff matchup, but it hasn’t actually happened. For the most part, as Babcock pointed out on Friday, the teams just haven’t been good at the same time.
Few thought they would be this season. But the Max Domi trade with Arizona has worked out exceptionally well for Montreal, rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi has helped and Brendan Gallagher is enjoying a second straight season of good health and may top 30 goals again.
The Leafs — with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Patrick Marleau and Morgan Rielly — have a bigger payroll and more big names. But they haven’t been able to close the gap on first-place Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division, and the Habs have been creeping closer and closer for weeks.
Freddie Andersen’s numbers are actually slightly better than Price’s, but few would rank him ahead of the esteemed Montreal goalie. The Leafs score more goals than Montreal and defend their own goal slightly better, while Toronto’s specialty teams are both better than those of the Canadiens, particularly on the power play where Montreal is second-worst in the league.
So are the two teams really close in quality, or does it just seem that way in early February because the Habs have played two more games and have been hot of late? Saturday night will provide some answers. It’s worth pointing out that Montreal still has not made a significant move to bolster its roster with the trade deadline coming up Feb. 25, and the Canadiens have lots of cap space to do so.
The Habs are crafting a nice story this season, better among all the Canadian-based teams except Calgary. So far, it’s just a story, but one that could grow in marquee value should a meeting with the Leafs in the playoffs this year finally be in the cards.