NHL Playoff Preview: MTL vs TOR

After the longest 56-game season imaginable, the NHL playoffs are finally upon us.

In honour of their start, I’ll be taking a look at each first round playoff matchup, comparing squads using analytics and narratives from the 2021 season.

Kicking off the Koho NHL playoff previews, we have the much anticipated series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens; their first playoff meeting since 1979.

Statistical Breakdown

For a more robust explanation of each statistic above and its definition click here.

The statistical breakdown between the Leafs and Habs notably shows some unexpected parallels in regard to their play styles. Both teams see similar shot quantities, both for and against per-game, as denoted by the Rates For and Against stats.

Essentially: they both shoot more than the average playoff team, but they also face/allow more shots.

The critical difference between these two squads is demonstrated in the quality of shots each team produces. The Maple Leafs have the highest quality of shots amongst all playoff teams, which should come as no surprise (Marner & Matthews, duh). Meanwhile, the Canadiens rank near the bottom in shot quality, presumably because they take so many shots from the outer-perimeter of the ice (Petry and Weber lol).

With the Leafs more likely to shoot from high danger areas, the Canadiens will need to maintain their sixth-ranked shot quality suppression numbers if they intend to put up a fight.

One of the more surprising statistics for both squads is their low ranking shooting ability metric, which contrasts the clear scoring talent each roster boasts. Both teams produce fewer goals than expected, which is curious specifically for the Maple Leafs, who produce the highest quality chances in the league. Could Toronto’s offence have more to give?

Moving on.

The difference in their special teams numbers expresses a clear structural difference between the two squads.

The Canadiens possess one of the league’s stronger penalty kills, while the Maple Leafs bolster the NHL’s top ranked powerplay. As cliché as it is, the winner of this series’ special teams battle will likely dictate the winner of the matchup.

Montreal Canadiens

There’s no team in the NHL that’s undergone an identity shift in the last two seasons quite like the Canadiens. Once regarded as one of the smallest/fastest rosters in the league, they’ve done a complete 180, targeting big body players. The acquisition of Toffoli, Anderson, Perry and Edmundson all signify this change in philosophy. The result of this ideological shift is yet to be determined, but will be heavily judged based on the turnout of this series.

Key points:

  • The Canadiens’ top trio of Tatar, Danault and Gallagher is one of the most underrated lines in hockey. Their ability to produce both offensively and defensively has arguably been one of the primary catalysts to the team’s success this season.
  • Anderson and Toffoli have scored as expected, but are detriments to the team defensively.
  • Nick Suzuki has been the two way force Canadiens fans have expected him to be, and will play a crucial role in shutting down the Maple Leafs second line.
  • Despite the play of their top line, development of young talent, and production from free agent signings, the Canadiens forward core still lacks the firepower expected of a cup hopeful.
  • The Canadiens’ defensive core has not produced the underlying statistics many might expect. They have behemoths on their back-end who are very capable at suppressing shots, but just like their forward group, they are unable to chip in offensively (Petry and Edmundson excluded).
  • Goaltending, as with almost every NHL team, is the crux of what could ultimately decide their fate in the first round. Will Carey Price be healthy enough to perform like he did against Pittsburgh last season? The jury is still out, but if his play this season is any indicator of what to expect, fans should be concerned.

X-Factor: Jeff Petry has been the primary offensive producer on the Canadiens’ back end and has effectively sold his defensive play in the quest to produce on the scoreboard. For the Canadiens to win this series, Petry must shutdown Matthews and company, all while putting up points. A tall order indeed.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Much like their opponents, the Maple Leafs have shifted their roster construction to feature gritty veteran players in the gaps between their stars. The Maple Leafs’ top 6 can compete with any other in the league and their production is expected to advance in the playoffs. The downfall of the Leafs will likely be due to their lack of depth, even with the apparent resurgence of Jason Spezza.

Key points:

  • Toronto’s offensive star power is among the best in the league. Analytics show that they might even have more to give? If such is the case, any opponent should be scared.
  • Veterans like Thornton, Simmonds and Bogosian aren’t productive anymore, but will be looked on to provide a spark to push the team forward.
  • The pairing of TJ Brodie and Morgan Rielly has been a successful endeavor according to the Wins above Replacement metric. While both players are bound to make glaring turnovers that may directly result in goals, the good far outweighs the bad, specifically for Brodie.
  • Holl and Muzzin appear to be the true backbone of Toronto’s defence. They are the under-looked contributors to a team that is better on the back end than many people expected.
  • Goaltending, again; the wildcard for almost every team. Will Jack Campbell perform as he did during his record setting win streak? Will Andersen re-emerge as the goalie he’s been over the entirety of his Leafs career? Will David Rittich get a shot in net at some point and run with it? Your guess is as good as mine. Jack Campbell will likely get the crease to start the series.

X-Factor: Jack Campbell holds the future of the Leafs in his hands. Anything less than a conference final appearance would be an unmitigated disaster for a team that is running out of time given their current cap situation.

Model Predictions

The higher seed Maple Leafs are the clear book favorites heading into the series with a price of -275. The model views Toronto at almost the same odds, predicting a 72.5% chance of a Maple Leafs victory. The Canadiens have slight value against the book given their odds, but not enough to make them playable in betting terms.

Final prediction: Toronto Maple Leafs in 6.

Koho contributor picks

Tate Laycraft: Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.

Connor McCallister: Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.

Michael Cotsalas: Toronto Maple Leafs in 6.

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