The NHL Regular Season has come to a close, and the Scotia North Divison has been a battle all season, and you can expect the same throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs.
To begin the season the team with the most noise surrounding them was the Montreal Canadiens. Out of the gate they looked like Stanley Cup contenders. Much has changed since then, and after limping into the playoffs the Canadiens have a date set with a long-time rival in the Toronto Maple Leafs for Round One of the playoffs.
The results in the standings set up the most highly anticipated first-round matchup in recent NHL history. Two Original Six teams that haven’t met in the postseason since 1979, the Toronto Maple Leafs the top seed in the Scotia North Division, and Montreal Canadiens, the number four seed. A first-round matchup for the ages. Here is what you can expect from the Canadiens.
It’s no secret that the Canadiens aren’t expected to win this series, they come in with a 3-6-1 record against the Maple Leafs in the regular season, the Leafs dominated Montreal this year and you can expect it to be the same way during this series.
Last year the Canadiens had this title in the bubble, and they took advantage of it. The Habs caught the Penguins off guard, which led to the series win. This year, the Leafs know what to expect. Both these teams know the other inside out, they know their strengths and they know their weaknesses. The key for the Canadiens is to exploit the Leafs’ weaknesses before Toronto does the same to them.
The Canadiens are used to being underdogs especially in the playoffs, but they may have never had the odds so far against them, against their biggest rival the Habs just need to own the underdog title. Even if it’s just for 4 games, the expectations are so low for the Canadiens, even from their own fans. Use it as motivation, it’s the only way they can win.
In the weeks leading up to game one, there has been a lot of questions about the lineup that Dominique Ducharme would set for the series against Toronto. In practice, the lines did not include Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Alexander Romanov. This had Habs fans understandably upset, Ducharme’s reasoning, “Experience”.
Without those three future assets, here is what the Canadiens lines look like.
Forwards: Tatar – Danault – Gallagher
Toffoli – Suzuki – Armia
Perry – Staal – Anderson
Byron – Evans – Lehkonen
Defense: Edmundson – Petry
Merrill – Weber
Kulak – Chiarot
The biggest win for the Habs with these lines is the return of Brendan Gallagher, the heart and soul player of the team who is back from a hand injury. Gallagher reunites with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar on the Habs top line, a line that is going to be tasked with shutting down Matthews and Marner. The 90-24-11 line is going to play the biggest role for the Canadiens in this series.
The Biggest loss is the bottom 6. Without Caufield or Kotkaniemi, Ducharme is putting more pressure on veteran Eric Staal, who has been not lived up to the hype since being acquired at the deadline. The Byron-Evans-Lehkonen line was a bright spot towards the end of the year for the Habs stays together, but you would much rather see Caufield or Kotkaniemi in one of those spots.
The Canadiens limped their way into the playoffs, and they might last less than a week, but scratching the only players that could benefit from a short playoff run is not how you develop prospects. Let the kids play.
Most Important Player.
The Montreal Canadiens, like many teams, have one player they rely on the most. For the Habs, it’s Carey Price, who has had this same amount of pressure for his entire career. But the truth is, the Habs need him if they are going to make it to the second round.
Price’s year has been frustrating, when healthy he just wasn’t good enough to steal the Habs a few games while they were struggling. Now that he has returned from injury he needs to be sharp, and in his conditioning game for the Laval Rocket, he wasn’t. Hopefully, he can bounce back for the playoffs.
The Canadiens do not match up to the Leafs well. They need everything to go perfectly if they hope to win this series. All the odds are against them, if they are going to make a run they need to own the underdog role, fix their lineups, and help Carey Price.
The motivation for the Canadiens is to force a game 6, fans in the Bell Center on May 29th could be just the spark the Habs need.
This series will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, enjoy it, folks. Whether it lasts four or seven games, it’s going to be fun to watch.