I don’t want to jinx things but, ah, what the hell. It sure looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make the playoffs.
Assuming I didn’t just single-handedly ruin Toronto’s run to the postseason, there’s only one question left to be answered: Will the Leafs finish the season third in the Atlantic, or will they slip back down to the final wildcard spot?
As things stand today, the Leafs sit somewhat comfortably in third in the Atlantic. They’re three points up on Boston and the Islanders, with a game in hand on the B’s. Sure, things can change, but for the sake of this article, let’s assume this is how the standings stay for the remainder of the season.
Finishing third would be a massive bonus for the Leafs. Not only would they avoid playing one of Columbus, Pittsburgh, or Washington in the first round, but they would be given the opportunity to play one of their two biggest rivals – Ottawa or Montreal.
Forget the ratings that would come from a Toronto vs. Ottawa/Montreal series. Forget the storylines, that Toronto has lost 14 straight against the Habs, or that Dion Phaneuf, one of the most polarising players in Leafs history, is now a Senator. Forget the playoff history between Toronto and Ottawa, and the lack thereof between Toronto and Montreal. The point of this exercise is to determine who the Leafs should want to play based on their chances of winning the series, and that alone.
OTTAWA & MONTREAL, AT A GLANCE
|Montreal||52.5 (4th)||61.38 (3rd)||55.53 (9th)||52.43 (7th)||53.23 (3rd)||100.69|
|Ottawa||47.69 (26th)||55.69 (21st)||61.07 (28th)||48.44 (20th)||48.57 (21st)||99.62|
It’s easy to look at the numbers say, “Ottawa it is!” and, well, you’d probably be making the right decision.
The Sens are a pedestrian team, both according to the numbers and the eye test. They don’t do anything particularly well, although playing one of those chip-on-their-shoulder-type teams is always dangerous. They’ve gotten stellar goaltending this season out of Mike Condon and Craig Anderson which, as we’ve seen time and time again, can be (and usually is) the difference in a seven-game series.
The Habs, meanwhile, pose much more of a quantifiable threat. They rank top-10 in a number of important fancy stats, and have shown the ability to control the flow of a game more often, and more effectively than Ottawa. They also employ one of the best coaches in the game and, of course, there’s the Carey Price factor.
THE CASE FOR WANTING TO PLAY OTTAWA
There are four reasons that immediately come to mind as to why Toronto should want to play Ottawa.
I know many of you don’t remember, but #TheLeafsActuallyUsedToBePrettyGood, and made the playoffs six years in a row, from 1998 to 2003. During that stretch, they played Ottawa four times. Toronto won all four series.
Yes, it’s a different era, with a whole new crop of players. Still, history can’t be erased, and all Toronto knows how to do against Ottawa in the playoffs is just win, baby.
Now, back to 2017. This season, Ottawa is 20-9 in one-goal games. Is that inherently bad? No, it’s not. However, as I touched on earlier, the Sens’ underlying numbers are less than spectacular, which leads me to believe that their 20-9 record in one-goal games has more to do with luck than skill.
This is important because it’s tough to maintain this pace, especially heading into the playoffs. Games get so, so tight, resulting in a number of close games, and Ottawa’s due to regress. Could they keep this going well into the postseason? Sure they could, though odds are some of the bounces will start to go against them.
Personnel wise, when you look at Ottawa’s forward group, there’s really no one who puts the fear of god in you. Yeah, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, and Mike Hoffman are all fantastic players, but beyond those three, who’s really going to be a difference maker? I’ll take Toronto’s group up-front over Ottawa’s every day of the week.
On defense, as mediocre as Toronto’s been all season, I really don’t think the gap between their D-core and Ottawa’s is as big as one might think. Would Erik Karlsson the best player in the series? Yeah, he would be, and he’s having one hell of a season. However, it’s so hard to play the matchup game against the Leafs, because they run three extremely competent lines. This means that when Karlsson isn’t on the ice, some combination of Dion Phaneuf, Cody Ceci, Mark Borowiecki, and Chris Wideman will be. Outside of Wideman, that’s a bad group.
In net, Craig Anderson has always been a great playoff performer, and he’s had a fantastic regular season. However, Toronto is one of the top CF60 teams in the NHL, and in playing Ottawa, the fourth-worst CA60 team in the NHL, they should be able to generate a number of chances over a seven-game series.
Also, Toronto would essentially play every game at home, which is an advantage.
THE CASE FOR WANTING TO PLAY MONTREAL
When talking about quantifiable reasons why Toronto should want to play Montreal over Ottawa, there’s really not much to find. However, Toronto may still have a few things working in their favour.
As we know, Montreal has hit a few rough patches over the past few seasons. Last season, it was catastrophic, as they plummeted down the standings, falling way outside of the playoff picture. This season, they went through a similar, albeit shorter stretch. This is a team that’s vulnerable to volatile periods of play, and who knows which version we’ll see come the playoffs.
Something else to keep in mind is that Montreal has relied on overtime for much of their success this season. When looking at regulation wins, Montreal has 29. Toronto has 28. The Habs have won nine times in overtime, which is tied for the second-most in the league.
Because of this, like Ottawa, Montreal has been fantastic in one-goal games, with a record of 21 and 8. The difference, though, is that Montreal has the underlying numbers to back it up. Still, they’re due to regress a bit and winning in overtime in the playoffs is a dangerous game to play.
Another thing to consider is Carey Price’s ‘minor injury’. My belief is that nothing is ever minor with goalies, and Montreal could be in a lot of trouble if this is something that carries over to the playoffs. An injured Carey Price is still a better goalie than most, but who knows how much it’s affecting him.
Lastly, we all saw how poorly Shea Weber played in last season’s playoffs, and it will be interesting to see how he bounces back. He’s 31-years-old and has once again averaged over 25-minutes of ice per game. Montreal’s lucky in that they’ve got some nice pieces on the back-end to support Weber, but that’s not going to stop Julien from throwing him out there for nearly half of the game. He’s already started to show signs of slowing down, and one has to wonder if he’ll be a detriment to a Montreal team that’s ready to win now.
Leaf fans, check your pride at the door – it would undoubtedly feel amazing to snap Montreal’s streak and beat them in the playoffs, but Ottawa’s the easier matchup.
Carey Price scares me more than Craig Anderson. Max Pacioretty scares me more than Mike Hoffman. Alex Galchenyuk scares me more than Kyle Turris. Claude Julien scares me more than Guy Boucher.
Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone may scare me more than Shea Weber and Alex Radulov, but Montreal has depth that Ottawa just can’t match, both up front and on defense.
If the Leafs want a shot at Monreal, they should be hoping it comes in the form of a second round matchup.