Finally, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to meet once more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Believe it or not, it’s been 42 years since these two last faced off in the postseason, with the last matchup taking place during the 1978-79 season. And in the years since then, needless to say, quite a lot has changed.
Heading into those ’79 playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens were, as usual, one of, if not the favourite to take home the Stanley Cup, being led by a roster that, quite frankly, needs no introduction. Steve Shutt, Guy Lafleur, Yvon Lambert, Larry Robinson, Mario Tremblay, Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and of course, the tandem of Michel “Bunny” Laroque and Ken Dryden in goal. Many of these players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and all of these players are revered in the long and storied history of the Montreal Canadiens, at least, in terms of their playing career.
On the flip side, the Maple Leafs were a surprise to have even made the playoffs in the first place, barely squeaking by with a 34-33-13 record. In the first round (the equivalent to last season’s qualifiers funnily enough) the Leafs pulled off an upset of sorts over a favoured Atlanta Flames team led by the one-two offensive punch of Bob MacMillan and Guy Chouinard.
In comparison, the Leafs were lacking in much game-breaking talent aside from long-time Captain Darryl Sittler, further complicated by the continued reign of controversial, often villainized owner, Harold Ballard. Instead of the always reliable, if not dominant Dryden, the Leafs’ crease was run by Mike Palmateer, an unassuming fifth-round pick who stood just at 5’9.
Heading into the series, the Leafs were, far and away, the underdog, and the results quite frankly reflected that. In spite of putting up a formidable fight (sending the final two games of the series to OT), the Leafs were swept by the Habs in four straight, as they went on to win their last of four consecutive Stanley Cups over the New York Rangers. Well, 42 years later, and it’s quite a different story being told regarding this year’s matchup.
The Montreal Canadiens haven’t had the easiest ride, to say the least. Not only this season, but since that fabled end to their last true dynasty. With a mix of playoff-less droughts, a head coaching carousel, and controversy surrounding players and the media, in spite of two more Stanley Cups since then (1986 and 1993), the Canadiens, and all Canadian teams for that matter, have yet to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup again since that 1993 run.
Similarly, the Leafs have endured their own struggles, some may argue worse than the Canadiens. But, in the days leading up to that May 20th Game 1 matchup, the outcome now falls on the shoulders of these current Leafs and Canadiens rosters. I don’t have to have a degree in theoretical physics to point out that the Canadiens, as opposed to that 1979 series, are the far and away underdogs this year. Montreal, in spite of some good stretches here and there, didn’t have a great season once again, complicated further by the continued loss of many of their key players to injury, such as Captain Shea Weber and franchise cornerstone Carey Price.
On the opposite side, the Leafs had a great campaign, as has been the norm over these past few seasons. Ever since the introduction of star forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the Leafs have been one of the NHL’s most exciting, fast-paced, and offensively capable teams. Matthews, the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, was on a near 60 goal pace over an 82-game stretch, ditto Marner’s assist totals. Couple this with improved depth across the lineup with the introduction of veterans like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, and a resurged Jason Spezza, and there’s a lot to like, and I guess, fear, about what Toronto brings to the table.
Starter Frederik Andersen was out for most of the latter half of this season due to injury, and that’s, quite frankly, to Toronto’s benefit. With him gone, former first-round pick and L.A. King backup Jack Campbell answered the call brilliantly, posting a 17-2-2 record with a 2.11 GAA. In my mind, he’s been one of the NHL’s best stories this season and is a true Bill Masterton Candidate.
With it being 42 years since the last playoff matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, how do this year’s lineups compare?
While the Habs managed to put up three 40-point players this season, their offence, for the most part, ran utterly dry following a white-hot start. Most of the lineup ran in fits and spurts, forcing the Habs to switch around lines frequently.
Free-agent acquisition Tyler Toffoli was, in my mind, Montreal’s MVP this season, with the former reliable 20, sometimes 30-goal scorer, eclipsing all expectations with 28 goals and 44 points over 52 games. Jeff Petry brought his usual offensive flair to the table and seems to only be getting better with age, posting 12-30-42 totals over 55 games. Second-year center Nick Suzuki overcame some scoring droughts to have a fantastic finish to the campaign, posting 12 points over his final 12 games for 15-26-41 overall, matching his output from the season prior.
With Price gone, former St. Louis Blues starter Jake Allen was forced to answer the call, and quite frankly, saved the Canadiens’ season. With Charlie Lindgren having been Price’s backup for last season’s playoffs, I dread to think where Montreal would’ve been without Allen. Well, not in the playoffs, but moving on. With Price expected to start come game 1, the hope is that the former Hart Trophy winner can overcome his recent struggles and be the elite back-stopper of seasons prior. Now, with all this in mind, can we expect a first-round sweep on the opposite side this year? Well, not exactly.
As much as I’ve bogged Montreal, not only in this piece but this season, the Canadiens have proven time and time again that there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Last year’s playoffs proved this, as Montreal fell just two games short of the Second Round. In comparison, the Leafs have yet to make it past the first round of the playoffs since 2004, when Pat Quinn was their head coach and Ed Belfour was their starting goalie. Much of the skepticism surrounding the Leafs this season is whether they are a true playoff-calibre team, and I expect they’ll be bringing everything and more to the table to try and turn this series in their favour.
In that same sense, Montreal has nothing to lose and are the underdogs, so I expect they’ll also be bringing those same qualities. And with the playoff potential of youngsters (well, the same age as me, but that’s beside the point) like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield, and Suzuki, I think Montreal could put up a fight if nothing else.
At the end of the day, this is a Leafs vs. Canadiens playoffs series once again, something which hasn’t been seen for decades, and I feel as though the mere appreciation of this event carries as much importance as the outcome of this series.
When that May 20th date hits, both teams should look to throw everything and the kitchen sink to secure either an upset or a long-awaited first-round win. Either way, just as the Ken Drydens and Darryl Sittlers of the past took to the ice in 1979, so too will the modern incarnations of these storied NHL franchises.