It's an absolute dream: for hockey fans, for broadcasters, for sponsors, and for one of the two teams involved. Yes, directly in the face of logic, the Toronto Maple Leafs have once again stumbled, and now face a white-knuckle Game 7 in their first-round matchup versus the Montreal Canadiens.
It's a pressure-cooker position that fans, haters, and even the predominantly indifferent cannot help but be taken by. After cruising to a division title and securing all the bragging rights in a season that revealed, finally — or at least over a complete sample — which Canadian team was truly best, it seemed impossible that the Leafs would, so soon and so spectacularly, once again meet certain doom.
Now Leafs fans are in sudden danger of becoming victims of their own hubris, with the slander and ridicule dropped from the top of the North Division heap coming back around harder than ever before, if their team — the one with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations — fails to close the deal against a historic rival that finished ions behind in the standings.
It would be the darkest moment of the team's tormented recent history, and a situation that would make the 4-1 collapse at Boston seem simple to live down.
Oh, and there will be plenty of actual consequences as well, one would surmise. Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe and the entire hockey operations staff will have to re-evaluate every detail and every contributing factor that would have led to a fifth consecutive postseason series failure in as many seasons if the Leafs fail to close on a third chance to eliminate the Habs.
On the flip side, Montreal's position has changed in a dramatic way. A season marked by desperation, and the relentless and aggressive pursuit of upgrades and quick fixes has arrived at this moment of salvation.
It may not be enough to save Marc Bergevin or Dominique Ducharme's jobs as general manager and head coach, respectively, but based on what was reality, and following disappointment after disappointment this season, another must-win game has presented, strangely, a near no-lose scenario.
The burden the Canadiens had been carrying has not only been lifted, but stacked directly onto the shoulders of the opposition, which has proven that its own remains cumbersome.
It will still hurt Montreal to lose, but not nearly as much as it will its opposition.
That's an enviable position to be in for a Game 7.
For those old enough to live through it, the wait on the Maple Leafs and Canadiens to meet again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs lasted 42 years. Considering the stakes, it seems the pay-off will be well worth it.
Here's what matters inside the 60-plus minutes Canadian hockey fans may be talking about for years to come.
Can Matthews and Marner break through?
Perhaps infamously, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe boasted before the series that his top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman wouldn't be sheltered from anyone. It was his belief that his dynamic partnership, proven to be one of the best in the league, should feast against any shutdown line that could be thrown into their path. It seems now he seriously underestimated the power of Montreal's top line, which, with defence being the priority, is essentially the antithesis to the one he relies so heavily on.
There is not a single measurable worth using to suggest that Phillip Danault and the Canadiens' No. 1 forward line has been the single-most dominant unit in the entire series. It is without a single goal, has required a change in composition, and almost exclusively spends its time on the retreat. However it is, without question, the reason we have arrived at a seventh game.
Matthews himself has competed head-to-head with Danault for over an hour at five-on-five — or 62 minutes and 49 seconds to be precise. The Leafs have managed to score twice in that scenario, and are comfortably winning those minutes, having not given up a single tally against. But what Danault and that unit have done unquestionably is mitigate the damage. Limiting Matthews and Marner to two total goals — and nothing over the last four games — the Danault line has taken away the one true advantage for the Leafs, at least since the injury to John Tavares.
A wash for the last 47-plus head-to-head minutes between the top two lines has reduced the series to a battle of the bottom nines, and as talented as the Leafs are, that scenario favours the Habs considerably. The likes of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Corey Perry and Tyler Toffoli have simply out-produced the direct competition, which has become thin behind William Nylander and Jason Spezza.
To be truthful, they should.
You would think that Mathews and Marner must solve Danault and the accompanying defence pairing of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot for the Leafs to win Game 7, because all the momentum, in every other matchup, is trending in Montreal's favour.
Carey Price is on one
How's this for foreboding, Leafs fans? The netminder that the best hockey-playing nation in the world would rely on in a single-game survival scenario is who stands in the way in Game 7.
Carey Price has been a magnet for criticism this season and really since the moment he signed a contract that pays him $10.5 million annually. It's a price tag that's almost impossible to live up to, knowing what we know now about goaltenders and cap dynamics, and that's really where the criticism is rooted in. However, among the three eight-figure players remaining in the series (following the loss of Tavares), and in these most important, career-defining moments, it's clear which one is fulfilling the obligations of a player in the top-tier tax bracket.
Price has been full value from the very start of the series. He carries a .926 all-situations save percentage into Game 7, trimming almost three goals off the estimated total from Toronto in terms of expected numbers, according to Natural Stat Trick. Those goals prevented above replacement are important context, because it is all that supports the eye-test determination that Price has, perhaps expectedly so, triumphed in the goaltending battle, as Jack Campbell's basic numbers actually exceed those of Price's.
Regardless, Price remains the great equalizer for Montreal — even if dominance across a 60-start season seems to be in the past. And there was no stronger evidence to that point than his 13 of his 41 saves made in an overtime Toronto dominated in Game 6 before Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored with the first moment of daylight the Canadiens could produce in the sudden-death scenario.
Another pain point
There's a shortlist of potential injuries that could truly undermine what makes the Leafs go. John Tavares is one, and Jake Muzzin another. Now through six games, the Leafs have lost each.
Hours before Game 7, the Maple Leafs announced that Muzzin would not only miss the game, but be absent at least three weeks. It would be a devastating blow to the original objective, which was to go on a long and meaningful postseason run, but for now it's just another serious concern for a team trying to survive the humiliation and potential repercussions of a first-round exit at the hands of Montreal.
Muzzin is arguably the Leafs' most important defenseman. He doesn't have the Morgan Rielly pedigree, and perhaps he didn't have a season as strong as T.J. Brodie's, but his presence might be considered more essential to the overall operation. That's because not only is Muzzin the Leafs' most reliable shutdown man, but he's also the player that seems to elevate Justin Holl into someone similarly capable in that regard. Toronto doesn't have half a shutdown pairing without Muzzin; it loses the entire thing.
Now, against Montreal specifically, it's possible that it matters a little less. The Canadiens don't have an absolute handful in terms of dynamic, high-powered forward lines — at least one that demands a hard match. What might be more costly now is that the two Maple Leafs defensemen prone to mistakes in the series will be thrust into elevated roles.
Physicality and pressure, two hallmarks of Montreal, have forced both Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin into crucial mistakes to this point in the series.
The ability to shelter one, while burying the other, isn't an option with Muzzin unable to go.
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