I’d be remiss if I neglected to address the ambitious nature of my headline right out of the gate. The Montreal Canadiens lost 4-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, so how could I possibly take from that game that they could win a playoff series against that same team?
Well, firstly, last night’s loss was more a product of costly errors than being dominated. If Tyler Toffoli doesn’t take an early penalty, Jon Merrill doesn’t have a puck deflect in off his stick, and Jake Allen doesn’t fumble a puck behind his own net, it’s a 1-1 game after 60 minutes. Alas, all of these things did happen.
But the Leafs won’t get a muffed puck by a goaltender or an own goal off a Montreal Defenseman every night. They might get more mind-bending displays of hand-eye coordination from Auston Matthews, but they won’t get regular season levels of power plays, and if the game goes to overtime, they’ll have to play it at five-on-five.
And that is the second reason the Habs have a chance — the five-on-five numbers put these teams closer to each other than their respective records, and last night’s score. The Canadiens controlled 55.26% of even-strength shot attempts, and had a significant edge in scoring chances at 27-16. At five-on-five, it was not as bad a game for them as the score alone would suggest.
Where the Leafs took a significant edge of their own was in high-danger chances, leading at 7-3. This gave them the edge in expected goals as well, and it earned them a win. This brings us back to costly errors causing those chances — it’s the one area at five-on-five the Habs need to look to improve if they have hopes to complete an upset. Either that, or hope for some stellar goaltending, which they’ve only gotten in spurts this year.
I believe they could win this series, but of course there is the question of whether it does the club any good long-term. It could serve as a crutch for management to claim their plans are working, and stave off change that this team clearly needs. I don’t think anyone has these Habs as a legitimate threat to go far in the playoffs, and there’s plenty of work needed before anyone will.
But the goal is always to win, so I’d not expect the players to do anything less than their best to make it happen. I’m not going to go so far as predicting they’ll do it, but if these Habs can get in the playoffs healthier than they are now, they could beat this Leafs team.
I’m honestly not even completely convinced that I want it, but it would be quite the sight to behold.