The result of Tuesday night’s exhibition game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs won’t mean a thing. The match is merely a way to give teams one bit of competitive action before the Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin. But the 60 minutes that will be played will be critical in getting teams up to speed for the elimination portion of the post-season, as two weeks of work at mid-summer training camps gets put to the test for the first time.
With a few adjustments made, concerns about various players’ health, questions about Montreal’s ability to contend with the better teams in the NHL, and even just the broadcast of a game with no fans in attendance, there will be a few telling outcomes for in the upcoming meeting between the rivals.
The game shape of Max Domi and Brett Kulak
Brett Kulak missed nearly all of training camp dealing with COVID-19. Max Domi decided not to join the Canadiens for the opening week as he was thinking about his well-being as a Type-1 diabetic. As a result, two key players for the team haven’t had much time on the ice at all since they played their last game on March 10.
Will they lag behind teammates on Tuesday night, just a fraction of a second slow to react to what’s going on around them? Having a centreman and a top-four defenceman starting out on the back foot could be a hindrance for the Habs, especially when it’s time for a short best-of-five series.
Which young centre gets trusted the most?
Claude Julien feels the quality of his centremen gives the club an even spread of talent throughout the lineup, and sees them bringing their own equally valuable skill sets to the table. Phillip Danault is going to get the most ice time among the team’s pivots as the most complete of the four, but how the head coach will deploy his other lines remains to be seen.
By monitoring the five-on-five ice time of his young forwards we may get a feel for which of Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Domi the coach is feeling most confident in.
How much effort will Julien put into line-matching?
The Maple Leafs will be a good test for a Habs team ultimately preparing to face the Pittsburgh Penguins, as both clubs have very strong, relatively deep forward corps. On Tuesday, Julien will get the last change as the home team, but he won’t be granted that privilege in the opening two contests versus the Penguins.
Does he make a conscious effort to get Danault out versus Toronto’s top line of William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Zach Hyman? Does he specifically give those top-six matchups to his younger centres to prepare them for their inevitable shifts versus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? Or does he simply roll all four lines equally and hope the depth proves sufficient?
Jonathan Drouin’s play
After some disappointing years to begin his tenure in Montreal, Jonathan Drouin entered training camp last fall looking like a different player, and he carried that momentum into the season. Unfortunately, an injury knocked him out of action partway through the year, and he never completely recovered after his return.
Now with another four months of healing time, he should be back in top form. He’s also been given a great opportunity alongside Suzuki and Joel Armia on a line that has a lot of different offensive tools and plenty of potential. We may find out as soon as tomorrow night how the chemistry they developed over the past two weeks translates to game action, and whether Drouin can ramp up his competitive level to the gear many believe he has.
Will any adjustments be made to the power play?
Montreal’s power play scored at a pace slightly better than once every six opportunities in 2019-20. As we saw in our look at the special teams of the Habs and Penguins, the vast majority of shots came from Shea Weber at the blue line, and that particular strategy only directed paid off with three power-play goals for the captain.
Suzuki and Drouin will carry their chemistry over to the first power-play unit and be joined by Tomas Tatar, who worked well with Suzuki during the season, and the hope is they can combine for some down-low connections. Will their playmaking feature more in the man-advantage situations, or will the main goal still be to set up Weber for long-range slapshots?
Can Montreal do a better job of protecting the crease on the penalty kill?
In that same analysis, the inability of Montreal to protect the crease, especially on the left side, was identified as the biggest flaw on the penalty kill. Like Pittsburgh, Toronto prefers to get shots from down low — focusing their attack on left-side defenders.
Montreal did a decent job of keeping Toronto’s power play off the board in three games this year, going seven-for-nine on the penalty kill. Five of those power plays were in the first meeting of the season, so perhaps the most impressive part of their success was in how disciplined they were from that first meeting. That’s obviously the greatest plan, but we’re sure to see a few power plays either way, and it will be important to watch how Victor Mete and Ben Chiarot lock down their post, whether by stick work (the former) or physicality (the latter) in those situations.
Do Price’s slow starts haunt him and the team once more?
In the past two seasons, we’ve been several months into the schedule before Carey Price found a form expected of a starting goaltender, let alone one perceived to be among the very best. He’ll eventually remind us all of his ability, but it’s taken a long time for him to show it.
The season pause has been nearly as long as a typical off-season for Montreal in recent years with no playoff berths. Montreal doesn’t have months for Price to reacclimate to the game, and if he can’t find his form, the post-season may last less than a week.
With no fans to create energy, which player becomes the team’s cheerleader?
The increase in intensity of the fans in the stands always creates a spine-tingling atmosphere in the post-season. That feature of the playoffs has been removed by the pandemic this year, threatening the enthralling nature of the tournament.
However, after several weeks of watching the MLS is Back tournament, it’s obvious that competitive sports still have passionate fans in attendance: the players sitting on the benches. In soccer’s short bubble tournament, shouts from the sidelines have been prominent for any perceived infraction, and constant throughout the game from players on the field. Hockey should be just as loud with all the communication going on on the ice, and players and coaches orchestrating play from the fringes and lobbying for penalties.
The question is which member of the Canadiens will be the most vocal and distinguishable on the broadcasts? Someone who’s jabbering constantly trying to encourage his teammates, relay strategy, and chirp the opponents? The favourite for that role has to be Domi (who gave us one of the top chirps of the season, though one that wouldn’t have survived the NHL’s new five-second delay), but perhaps someone else on the team will have his voice reverberating around Scotiabank Arena.