When you make predictions or preview a series — especially one in the first round — you can generally only base it on what has happened in the regular season. Based on that, there’s absolutely no question why the Toronto Maple Leafs are favoured over the Montreal Canadiens.
The general feeling, however, is that the Canadiens have a chance. What, then, is that path to victory?
Quite simply, it’s the fact that the Canadiens from the regular season were never really put in a position to succeed. That’s not an excuse — a lot of that was their own doing, of course. They simply didn’t play well for a majority of the season. Between a strong start, a downward slope that resulted in the firing of their coach, they then had a condensed schedule unlike anything else any team in the North Division playoffs had seen.
The result was the Canadiens quite literally limping down the stretch. The condensed schedule played a role in many players playing hurt, some even unable to play, and others playing on the point of exhaustion. The salary cap situation also meant that their ability to rotate players was limited.
So, after everything written above, why do the Canadiens still have a chance? Well... because of everything written above.
For better or for worse, we will see what this Canadiens team is really made of starting on Thursday. After a week off, consecutive days of practice, and reinforcements from the injured list, they finally have a chance to hit the reset button. Will they play as the best versions of themselves? Will they play as a team that is “built” for a playoff series? Or will they stumble like they did in the regular season?
The expectation of the group, and of fans, is that the rest and recovered bodies will see them have a boost. That’s honestly a fair expectation. What remains to be seen, however, is whether that boost will be big enough to close the gap the regular season created between the two teams. That is why they play the games.
The other, and potentially more important, factor is goaltending. You can win with good goaltending, and you can win with average goaltending but you cannot win a playoff series with bad goaltending (or at least, bad goaltending that is also worse than your opponent’s).
Between Carey Price and Jake Allen, the Canadiens have two goaltenders who have a history of stepping up in the playoffs. You only have to look back at the bubble for both goaltenders in that regard. In Jack Campbell, the Maple Leafs think they have their goaltender but as Toronto fans know more than most, showing it in the playoffs is still a question mark. That isn’t to say he will be bad, it’s just a question — just like it is for the Canadiens. The expectation is they will be fine, but a seven-game series can spiral quickly.
Through the playoffs we will finally see what the 2020-21 Canadiens are. They were billed in the pre-season as a team built for the playoffs and with high expectations. Until today, they have yet to really show that. Now, they’re running out of runway.
Over the next four to seven games, it’s now or never.