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The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs have begun! Some matchups still haven't started, so feel free to check out the previews for East Division, Central Division and West Division if you haven't already done so.
(1) TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS VERSUS (4) MONTREAL CANADIENS
The Maple Leafs won the North, with a 35-14-7 record, after sitting atop the standings of the all-Canadian division for most of the season. It marks the team’s first division title in 21 years when Toronto won the Northeast Division in 1999-2000. Montreal’s red hot start (7-1-2) to the year quickly fizzled and it was a fairly inconsistent showing the rest of the way. The Canadiens eventually locked up the final playoff spot in the team’s second-to-last game of the year and finished with a mark of 24-21-11. It sets up matchup that has been a long-time coming for the storied rivals, as this will be the first time since 1979 that the Leafs and Canadiens will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Toronto’s depth at forward is the team’s biggest strength. Auston Matthews will capture the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy after scoring a league-leading 41 goals in 52 games. Having John Tavares, who reached the 50-point plateau in 56 matches, as the second-line center is a big advantage. Mitch Marner had another tremendous season, with a team-leading 67 points in 55 games, while playing alongside Matthews. William Nylander has developed chemistry with Tavares and he concluded the year with 42 points across 51 appearances. The Leafs added Nick Foligno and Alex Galchenyuk to fill top-six roles during the year and provide some more depth options, while Riley Nash could make his Toronto debut as the team’s third-line center in the postseason. Veterans Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds were signed prior to the start of the season and they have chipped in along with Jason Spezza. Each of those veterans brings something a bit different to the table, but they have all made their presences felt. Zach Hyman, who missed action with a sprained MCL down the stretch, has had success up and down the lineup. He is expected to be ready for the playoffs.
The Canadiens benefited from some off-season spending going into the year to supplement their forward group. Tyler Toffoli made a big impact, while leading the team with 28 goals and 44 points in 52 games. Josh Anderson finished second on the club with 17 markers, while Corey Perry chipped in as well. Nick Suzuki, who elevated his play in his sophomore campaign, was the team’s top-producing forward behind Toffoli, with 41 points in 56 appearances. Tomas Tatar had success as well with 30 points in 50 appearances, while Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault contributed as well prior to suffering injuries. Danault’s defensive presence will be a big part of the team’s game plan. Cole Caufield made his much-anticipated NHL debut after winning the 2021 Hobey Barker Award and he provided some scoring. The team’s top prospect could see some playing time in the playoffs.
Toronto’s defense corp was improved in the off-season with the signing of T.J. Brodie. He has been a good partner for Morgan Rielly, who was the team’s offensive leader from the back end with 34 points in 54 contests. The emergence of Justin Holl also helped the group, as has formed a solid shutdown pair with Jake Muzzin. The Leafs’ third pairing could feature Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott or Ben Hutton as Zach Bogosian recovers from a shoulder injury. There is depth to the group that there hasn’t been in the past and it’s made a big difference.
Shea Weber, who missed time at the end of the season wth an injury, and Ben Chiarot are a physical pairing for the Canadiens. They are matched up against the best players on the opposition and they were excellent last year in the postseason. Jeff Petry will enter the playoffs following a career year in 2020-21. He racked up 42 points in 55 games to place second on the team in scoring. Joel Edmundson played well in his first year with Montreal and Alexander Romanov had a strong rookie campaign.
Jack Campbell emerged as Toronto’s number one netminder. He has outperformed Frederik Andersen, who dealt with an injury and returned to the lineup before the end of the year, by a large margin. Campbell also made some history in 2020-21 when he started the year with a record of 11-0-0. He finished the campaign 17-3-2 with a 2.15 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. He will enter the series as the starter. Andersen is a bit more of a wild card. He didn’t have a strong season and his past playoff performances have left something to be desired even though his numbers for the past two trips, especially last year in the bubble, haven’t been poor. Allowing goals at inopportune times that have hurt Andersen and the team, which is an issue that hasn’t arisen with Campbell.
Carey Price is a big X-factor for the Canadiens. He hasn’t played since April 19 because of a concussion and he missed some time before that with a lower-body injury. Price didn’t play particularly well when he was in the lineup. Still, he has some impressive playoff performances under his belt and he was excellent last year in his first postseason appearance since 2017. His health is a major question mark and it could be a concerning situation for Montreal. Jake Allen has carried the load in the crease during Price’s absence. He got off to a great start in 2020-21, but went through some struggles the rest of the way. Allen has playoff experience and he has played well in those matches should he be called upon again to play some more contests.
Toronto is a big favorite in this series because of the 18-point gap between the two teams in the standings and their success against the Canadiens this year. Still, this series could be close. The Canadiens will be looking to take advantage of turnovers on the forecheck and counter-attack with their speed. If the Leafs force Montreal to play catch up and continue to limit the defensive mistakes that have plagued them in the past then they should finally advance and exorcise some playoff demons in the process.
Neither team has much of edge on special teams going into the series, so it could come down to 5-on-5 play and that’s an area where the Canadiens and Leafs have both played well. However, the difference is that Montreal didn’t take advantage of their opportunities nearly as much as Toronto and that could be the difference in the series.
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Players to Watch
Mitch Marner - Marner magic was something that occurred often during the 2020-21 season and the Leafs need that to continue in the playoffs. He has 21 points in 25 career postseason matches, but he has scored just five times and he didn’t find the back of the net in five games last year in the qualifying round. Marner chipped in four assists in that series, but he will no doubt be looking for a better showing this time around. He racked up 11 points, including four goals, in 10 games versus Montreal during the regular season.
Joe Thornton - Thornton signed a one-year deal with Toronto in the off-season worth $700,000 for a chance to win the Stanley Cup. The 41-year-old forward has played 1,680 regular-season games and 179 playoff games without winning the NHL’s ultimate prize. Thornton is third in scoring among all players in the playoffs with 133 points (31 goals, 102 assists). Only Sidney Crosby (190) and Evgeni Malkin (169) have more. Jason Spezza (1,176 regular-season games and 85 playoff matches) is also hoping to end his Stanley Cup drought.
Nick Suzuki - Suzuki was Montreal’s top offensive performer from April until the end of the season. He racked up 21 points in 24 games during that stretch, while placing second on team in goals (8) and assists (13). Suzuki also had four goals and eight points in 10 games against Toronto during the regular season. Additionally, he was the team’s offensive leader in the playoffs last year with four goals and seven points in 10 outings.
Brendan Gallagher - Gallagher is expected to be available to play when the playoffs begin. He missed the last 21 games of the regular season with a broken thumb. Gallagher is slated to be back with Danault and Tatar, which has been a solid two-way combination for the Canadiens in the past. They will probably be tasked with trying to shut down Matthews and Marner. How efficient they are in that role, especially with Gallagher and Danault coming back from injuries, will go a long way to determining the outcome of this series. Gallagher can be impactful when he’s healthy, as a possession-driving force and a pesky scorer.
Additional Series Notes
Toronto’s power play finished 16th overall at 20.0% after it struggled mightily following a hot start. The team has gone 5-for-73 since March 11. Montreal ranked 18th on the man advantage with a power-play percentage of 19.2%.
The Leafs and Canadiens both concluded the campaign with a 78.5% penalty kill percentage. Toronto permitted 31 power-play against, while being shorthanded 144 times. The Canadiens allowed 37 goals against on opposition power plays, while being short a man 172 times.
Toronto tied for third in the league with 25 wins when scoring first in a game. The Maple Leafs also led the league in goals for in the first period with 61.
The Leafs ranked second overall in goals for at 5-on-5 with 132.
Montreal has the second worst shooting percentage (9.0%) among playoff teams and the worst save percentage (.896).
Toronto was sixth in league in shots on goal (1,751) and Montreal was right behind them at seventh (1,746).
The Canadiens ranked third overall in high-danger scoring chances for at 5-on-5 (215), while the Leafs were close behind in fourth (205).
The Canadiens led the league with 1,585 hits.
The Leafs had the seventh-best goals against per game played (2.64).
(2) EDMONTON OILERS VERSUS (3) WINNIPEG JETS
The Oilers claimed the second spot in the North Division with a mark of 35-19-2. Edmonton finished nine points ahead of the Jets and reached another level following a disappointing three-game set versus Toronto. The Oilers went on a 21-8-2 run after that to seize control of a top-two spot in the division. The Jets stumbled down the stretch, while losing nine of 12 games, but the team managed to clinch the No. 3 spot in the North and win two straight games prior to the end of the year. They finished with a mark of 30-23-3.
The Oilers had the best one-two punch in the league with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid had an otherworldly season, while leading the league with a jaw-dropping 105 points in 56 contests. He also topped the NHL with 72 assists and 33 multi-point performances. Draisaitl, who spent time alongside McDavid as well as on a separate line, finished second in the league with 84 points and 53 assists in 56 matches. He was also second behind only McDavid in multi-point efforts with 25. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto contributed some additional scoring, while occupying top-six forward roles, but only Nugent-Hopkins managed to to hit the 30-point plateau.
Winnipeg had some more balanced scoring among their forwards. Mark Scheifele topped the Jets with 63 points and 42 helpers in 56 contests. Kyle Connor led the club with 26 goals and he reached the 50-point mark in 56 outings. Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, who missed the last nine games of the year due to injury, accounted for 46 points apiece. Andrew Copp had a career year offensively with 15 goals and 39 points in 55 appearances. Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois provide additional depth down the middle, but they have also played on the wing this season. Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton have had quietly productive campaigns as well.
Most of Edmonton’s secondary scoring came from the defense, as Tyson Barrie led all NHL blueliners in scoring with 48 points in 56 games. His 40 helpers second among defensemen and his power-play points (23) tied him second among defensemen. Darnell Nurse had a career year with 36 points in 55 outings. He scored a personal best 16 goals and averaged a career-high 25:38 of ice time per match, which ranked fourth among defenders.
Neal Pionk supplied 32 points in 54 games on Winnipeg’s blue line. Josh Morrissey was the team’s ice-time leader (23:33 per game played) and he chipped in 21 points in 56 matches. Winnipeg and Edmonton both struggled with shot suppression, but Winnipeg was better at keeping high-danger scoring chances out of their net.
Connor Hellebuyck played a big part of that. He led the league in goals saved above expected and his goals saved above average also ranked among the top-10 in the NHL. Hellebuyck faced more shots than any goaltender in 2020-21, while posting a 2.58 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and four shutouts. The 2020 Vezina Trophy winner often gives his team a chance to win each game.
The Oilers made the surprising off-season decision to bring back Mike Smith after he struggled in 2019-20 and was quickly replaced by Mikko Koskinen in the postseason. However, the move paid off in a big way, as Smith turned back the clock with an amazing season. He finished ahead of Hellebuyck in goals saved above average and he wasn’t far behind in goals saved above expected either. Smith ended up with a 21-6-2 record along with a 2.31 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage and three shutouts. The 39-year-old netminder became the team’s go-to option in the crease from the moment he made his season debut in early February.
Winnipeg had no answer for McDavid during the regular season. He feasted on the Jets with seven goals and 22 points in just nine appearances. He posted multiple points in each contest. It is reasonable to believe that if the Jets had discovered a way to stop him then the team would have implemented those changes already. However, the playoffs can be tighter and power-play chances can be limited. Keeping Edmonton off the man advantage will be a top priority of Winnipeg.
Another key to the series will be goaltending. It was an issue for the Oilers last year in the postseason, but Smith has inspired plenty of confidence in that position during the regular season. Hellebuyck may have to steal some games for the Jets and his .877 save percentage versus Edmonton in the regular season will obviously need to improve. Hellebuyck versus McDavid, or Connor against Connor, is probably the key matchup in the series, as they both have the ability to turn around games on their own. Winnipeg’s forward depth will have to come through as well for them to be able to pull off an upset.
Players to Watch
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Nugent-Hopkins took a step back in 2020-21 after he operated at nearly a point-per-game pace the previous campaign. He also had much better scoring rates in 2018-19 and 2017-18. Nugent-Hopkins needs to step up in the postseason and he should have plenty of motivation with his contract set to expire. He will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in the off-season. Nugent-Hopkins was also productive in the playoff bubble last year with two goals and eight points in four outings.
Darnell Nurse - The Oilers were looking for Nurse to step up due to the absence of Oskar Klefbom, who missed the entire 2020-21 campaign due to a shoulder injury which required surgery to repair. He was able to rise to the occasion and will be counted on to continue that success in the postseason. Nurse has played great at both ends of the ice this year.
Nikolaj Ehlers - As previously mentioned, Ehlers was out of the lineup late in the year. He has been progressing towards a return from an upper-body injury. Getting him back as quickly as possible is important for the Jets. He was second on the team with 21 goals and 46 points in 47 matches prior to getting hurt. Ehlers was playing like the team’s top player and his return would settle what has been a shaky situation at right wing for the Jets since he has been out of the lineup.
Pierre-Luc Dubois - Dubois has had an uneven season since he was acquired from Columbus in the deal that sent Patrik Laine to the Blue Jackets. He notched eight goals and 20 points in 41 games with his new team. Dubois only had one helper in 12 games down the stretch and he appeared to get a bit banged up in the team’s regular-season finale. He is still expected to be available for Game 1, though, and he will need to be much more influential. He was a two-way force in the postseason last year, while providing four goals and 10 points in 10 appearances with Columbus.
Additional Series Notes
Edmonton had the best power-play percentage in the league (27.6%) and led the league with 48 goals on the man advantage. Winnipeg’s power play ranked seventh overall at 23.0%, while scoring 37 times on 161 opportunities.
The Oilers allowed the third most high-danger scoring against at 5-on-5 during the regular season and ranked among the top-10 in goals against under those circumstances.
Winnipeg surrendered the fourth fewest high-danger scoring against that resulted in goals for the opposition.
The Jets placed eighth in the league in scoring chances for at 5-on-5, while Edmonton ranked 30th. The Oilers gave up the most 5-on-5 scoring chances against in the league.
Winnipeg’s save percentage at 5-on-5 was fourth best in the NHL at .928.