Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview

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For the first time since 1979 the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are taking their rivalry to the playoffs.

The Maple Leafs owned the regular season series with a 7-2-1 mark as they put together one of their best regular season records in franchise history.

Toronto is definitely the favorite to come out of the North Division playoffs, but for that to happen they will have to do something they have not done in more than 15 years — win a playoff series.

Montreal, meanwhile, followed a busy offseason that saw massive roster overhaul by taking the fourth playoff spot in the North Division. Their overall record is a small improvement from a year ago, but might still be a disappointment given how well they started and the money they spent in the offseason.

MAPLE LEAFS VS. CANADIENSseries livestream link

Thursday, May 20: Canadiens at Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
Saturday, May 22: Canadiens at Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Monday, May 24: Maple Leafs at Canadiens TBD
Tuesday, May 25: Maple Leafs at Canadiens TBD
*Thursday, May 27: Canadiens at Maple Leafs TBD
*Saturday, May 29: Maple Leafs at Canadiens TBD
*Monday, May 31: Canadiens at Maple Leafs TBD

Maple Leafs – Canadiens Storylines

The pressure is on Toronto

All of the pressure.

By now you already know the history. The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff series since the 2003-04 season. The current core has made the playoffs four years in a row and lost in the First Round (or the Qualifying Round) each time, never taking any kind of substantial step forward.

That can not continue.

Not only because this group needs to have some kind of playoff success, but because this is going to the best chance this core has had yet. The roster is deep, and they are going to be the favorites in any of their North Division matchups through the first two rounds. You never want to put a championship or bust expectation on a team (it will almost always miss that mark) but the time has come for this team to finally advance. Another First Round exit would be unacceptable.

If they do not win at least one round, and maybe even two rounds, nobody is going to remember Auston Matthews‘ goal total in a shortened season (41 goals in 51 games), or Mitch Marner‘s offense, or the team’s franchise-best regular season points percentage. If they do remember, they will probably not care.

Brendan Gallagher‘s return and impact

The good news for the Canadiens is they should be getting one of their best and most impactful players back for the start of the playoffs in Brendan Gallagher. He has not played since April 5 and the Canadiens have struggled without him, as they tend to do every single time he goes out of the lineup. They are a different team when he plays, and there is nobody to replace him when he does not. He is their best two-way player, their best possession driver, and has scored at a 30-goal pace (per 82 games) over the past four years.

Along with Gallagher, the Canadiens are also expected to have Carey Price back which creates another interesting situation to watch.

Price is the face of the franchise and has been capable of putting the team on his back in the past. He has not been that player this season, while Jake Allen has at times been the better player. Do the Canadiens roll with Price? Do they alternate? Do they go to Allen if needed? Interesting situation to watch.

Does Marc Bergevin need the Canadiens to win?

Bergevin has been the Canadiens’ general manager since 2012 and the team has never really accomplished much during his tenure. They have never really been truly bad, they have never been truly great, they are just kind of stuck in this middle ground of mediocrity. Over the past year Bergevin has been one of the most active and aggressive GMs in the league when it comes to overhauling the roster, spending big money and adding a lot of players. The results, again, are completely average. The Canadiens already changed coaches this season with similar results before and after the change. The players have changed. The coaches have changed. Only the GM has remained the same. Montreal has moved beyond the First Round just twice during Bergevin’s tenure, and zero times since the 2014-15 season.

Joe Thornton goes for the Stanley Cup

Not only is Toronto trying to win its first Stanley Cup since the Original Six days, but Joe Thornton is trying to add the final accomplishment that his Hall of Fame resume needs. A championship.

He joined the Maple Leafs on a one-year deal and has proven that he still has a little something left in the tank as a depth player. His 20 points in 43 games and ability to still drive possession makes him one of the more effective depth players in the league. If Toronto does end up winning he is going to no doubt play a role in that success.

One big question for Toronto: The goaltending

Frederik Andersen‘s injury and overall inconsistency this season opened the door for Jack Campbell to get significant playing time in the second half, and he did not disappoint.

Campbell put together a 17-2-2 record in his appearances with a .923 save percentage. It is by far the best stretch of his career. Given how little Andersen has played recently (just one game since March 20) and how much he has struggled in his 10 most recent starts there can not be much confidence in him at the moment. Campbell is pretty clearly the superior option at this moment.

He has been excellent. But how long can he maintain this level of play? Goaltending is the one position you do not want to be a question mark going into the playoffs.

One big question for Montreal: Can Cole Caufield be a difference maker?

For all of the roster moves Bergevin made before the season and during it, no addition to the lineup has the potential to be as impactful as the Canadiens’ top prospect, Cole Caufield.

He has only played 10 NHL games but he has already scored four goals (and five total points), with all of them coming over the past seven games. The Canadiens’ roster is full of players that could probably be best described as “really good.” They are useful, productive players that can produce and are good enough to be a part of a playoff team. But they lack a star-level player at forward that can take over a game and dominate it. Nick Suzuki has that sort of potential. But Caufield has more of it. If the Canadiens are going to have a chance in this series Caufield might have to be one of the players that makes a big impact.

Prediction: Maple Leafs in 6

Even though Toronto dominated the regular season series and has a 18-point lead in the standings, you should not completely write off the Canadiens. Along with Toronto’s goaltending question, the Canadiens are one of the best possession teams in the league, are getting some key players back in time for the start of the series, and have a young star just starting to make an impact. They can keep this competitive. But even if they do it is hard to imagine them actually winning it. Toronto still has the most talent and the better overall team, and that will show in this series.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview originally appeared on NBCSports.com