It is a Stanley Cup playoff series that is 42 years in the making, and the wait is finally over.
For the first time since 1979, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will meet in the NHL’s post-season Thursday night with Game 1 of their North Division semifinal series at Scotiabank Arena.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic will prevent any fans from watching games inside the downtown Toronto rink, or outside at Maple Leaf Square for that matter, although it was announced Tuesday that 2,800 fans will be allowed inside Montreal’s Bell Centre for a potential Game 6 on May 29.
The overwhelming majority of hockey pundits are predicting a series victory for Toronto, and some say it will be in as few as four or five games, so it is a no-brainer to say that the first-place Leafs are under a lot more pressure than the Habs to advance to Round 2.
They are not only expected to win, Toronto is supposed to do so handily. But I doubt it will be that easy.
Yes, the Maple Leafs went wire-to-wire and finished comfortably atop the division, which gives the team home-ice advantage until at least the final four teams are left standing.
But as we have seen in recent memory — too many times, really — the Leafs have failed to get over the hump when it has mattered most.
Fans still cringe at the nightmare of Toronto’s Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins in 2013 when Patrice Bergeron scored in overtime to cap a miraculous comeback from a 4-1 deficit midway through the third period.
The Leafs have lost three other first-round playoff series since — including two more against Boston — and have not advanced past the opening round since 2004, which seems like a lifetime ago.
Despite their regular-season success, there are still a few questions that Toronto must answer heading into their Round 1 matchup versus Montreal.
Is this the year they finally win a series? Will the experience of veterans Joe Thornton, Nick Foligno, Zach Bogosian, T.J. Brodie, Wayne Simmonds and Riley Nash translate into playoff success? Can new starting goalie Jack Campbell continue his impressive run? Will the power play catch fire again or continue to fire blanks?
Montreal started the season strong but quickly faded, made a mid-season coaching change, lost a few players to injuries along the way, added some veteran grit at the trade deadline and held on for a fourth-place finish in the North.
However, with star goalie Carey Price, captain Shea Weber and pesky forward Brendan Gallagher returning to the lineup, the playoffs are sure to give the Habs a new lease on life — just as it did last summer when they eliminated the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL’s summer bubble.
Toronto should win this series, from the personnel they have on paper and from what we’ve seen on the ice this season, which includes a 7-2-1 record against their arch-rivals.
Offence/Defence: The Leafs scored the sixth-most goals in the league this season (3.35 GF/G) and allowed the seventh-fewest goals (2.62 GA/G), while Montreal ranked 17th and 18th, respectively (2.82 GF/G, 2.95 GA/G). Advantage: Toronto
Goaltending: When playing at his best, Montreal’s Carey Price is still one of the best goalies on the planet. However, he has had a subpar season and is just now coming back from a concussion, leaving backup Jake Allen to shoulder much of the load down the stretch. If Price is not himself, that is going to be a major setback for the Habs. Jack Campbell has enjoyed a career season as Toronto’s new No. 1 man between the pipes and should he falter at any point, former starter Frederik Andersen is waiting in the wings after recovering from a lower-body injury. Advantage: Montreal
Defencemen: The Maple Leafs’ defence is much improved this season thanks to the addition of veterans T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian, while youngster Rasmus Sandin hasn’t looked out of place in his limited time with the team. Montreal’s Jeff Petry is one of the most underrated d-men in the NHL, hitting double digits in goals in the last four seasons. A healthy Shea Weber and big-bodied blue-liners Joel Edmundson and Ben Chiarot make for a formidable sextet. Advantage: Even
Forwards: It’s no secret that the Leafs have an embarrassment of riches up front. Auston Matthews scored a league-best 41 goals in 2021, while linemate Mitch Marner had a team-high 47 assists and 67 points. They finished fourth and fifth in points this season and are accompanied by other dangerous offensive weapons such as John Tavares and William Nylander. Tyler Toffoli paced the Habs attack with 28 goals — his highest total since 2015-16 — and Montreal will also need production from Brendan Gallagher, Nick Suzuki, Josh Anderson and Tomas Tatar if they want to reach Round 2. Advantage: Toronto
Head coach: Sheldon Keefe has compiled a .602 winning percentage over two shortened seasons behind the Leafs bench and guided the club to a first-place finish in the North — the team’s first division crown in 21 years. He has a firm grasp on how his team ticks and if he can solve the Leafs’ ailing power play the sky is the limit. Montreal’s Dominique Ducharme replaced Claude Julien early this season and went 15-16-5 in his first NHL gig. Whichever coach makes the right adjustments at key points in this series will get the better of the other. Advantage: Toronto
There is no doubt in my mind that Montreal will play a physical game against Toronto, leaning especially hard on NHL goal-scoring leader Auston Matthews and his slick setup man Mitch Marner to take away space and time.
The Leafs are well equipped to reciprocate with the likes of Foligno, Simmonds and Zach Hyman, with the goal of enabling their skilled players to get to those high-danger scoring chance areas.
At the end of the day, and this series, if Toronto’s star players live up to their own expectations and don’t succumb to the playoff pressure once again, the Leafs will be on their way to the second round.
If Montreal pulls off the upset, however, the question of whether this current Leafs group is capable of a long playoff run will have its answer.
Prediction: Toronto over Montreal in six games.
Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.