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Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Is the North ready to be competitive yet?

·10-min read

Maple Leafs (1) vs. Canadiens (4)

For one season and one season only, hockey fans north of the border would be supplied with the knowledge, at least for this single moment in time, of which franchise was best. And at the end of 56 games (and if we're honest, long before), the Toronto Maple Leafs answered that question definitively. But perhaps more important for fans of the postseason success-starved franchise is the fact that the Maple Leafs didn't rest on their laurels on the path to their first division title in decades. 

Kyle Dubas was fixated on more consequential objectives, having worked to assemble a team that is more talented, far more balanced, and considerably deeper than it was at the beginning of the season — and despite rival GMs taking opportunities to poach his players in the waiver system. From Jack Campbell's emergence as a fearless No. 1 option in net, to the midseason additions of Nick Foligno, Alex Galchenyuk and potentially Riley Nash, to the bonanza of high-character contributors at the margins, it seems the Leafs have set themselves up to withstand just about anything. 

The only question now is does that include the pressures of the postseason? 

Toronto is in an enviable position of having the path set out in a way that the task will become gradually more difficult, and not immediate like in previous playoffs. Still, the best version of themselves — as achieved, mainly, behind the superstar duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — still has to answer the more pressing question in their own self interests. It's not good enough to be the best team in Canada over the balance of the season for the Leafs. This Leafs team must advance beyond Canada for the season to be considered a success. The first step is the first postseason meeting with Montreal in more than four decades.

The Montreal Canadiens will live beyond this season as a fascinating NHL case study. The momentum from an aggressive summer for Marc Bergevin translated into a juggernaut start. Despite a series of standout performances from both expected and unexpected sources, however, it still could not prevent the bottom from falling completely out. 

Since the desperation move at the coaching position, which meant axing Claude Julien in favor of Dominique Ducharme, the Canadiens have performed at a similarly mediocre level as compared to last season, when they were gifted a spot in the NHL's bubble. Now it seems they will arrive by default again, capturing the final seed in the North primarily due to the wave of mediocrity in the bottom half of the division. If you want to spin it positively, being where they didn't belong last summer failed to translate into a quick exit. Perhaps the Canadiens can repeat history, this time ruining the big plans of a storied rival. But there is little evidence to suggest the Canadiens have that capability, having performed well below a postseason-calibre outfit for the majority of the season. 

The pressure is on for the Maple Leafs.  (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
The pressure is on for the Maple Leafs. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

What have you done for me lately?

The Leafs have just done what they've been doing. There's really no need to select a self-serving date to illustrate their dominance, because it has existed from the start of the season. What's maybe more relevant in terms of recent news is the potential postseason lineup head coach Sheldon Keefe flashed at practice earlier in the week. In it, Keefe seems to have every aspect he's prioritized at the start of the season, with an optimized top line, bolstered second, shutdown third with the yet-to-debut Riley Nash, and nothing but character on the fourth line. Peaking, it's possible that we see the very best version of the Leafs when the games finally do truly matter.

Losers of five consecutive games, Montreal isn't exactly illustrating a convincing postseason form, however the team did perform reasonably well as it was locking down its postseason spot before the latest downturn, winning four of five. Nick Suzuki was particularly dominant across that stretch, racking up three goals and nine points, and continues to be, scoring three times in the five losses since. It seems obvious that Suzuki has to be at his best for the Canadiens to function at a high level, so at least their top center is in form.

The Maple Leafs will win if...

They aren't in their own heads. Toronto is far and away the better team in the matchup, and there would be very little, if any, concern if it weren't for the Leafs' tormented past.

The Canadiens will win if...

Sochi Carey Price reveals himself.

Series Hero

The extent of Auston Matthews' season-long damage was perhaps mitigated slightly versus the Canadiens, but still the to-be-crowned goal-scoring king feasted on the Leafs' rivals nonetheless. Seven of Matthews' 41 goals were against Montreal, while he also chipped in with seven assists in the 10 head-to-head meetings. The threat of the single most talented scorer in the world will be omnipresent for the Canadiens, who just don't have the same between volume scorer Tyler Toffoli and emerging striker Cole Caufield.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

Can I just say first that I am fully behind the Fernando Pisani Trophy as a concept? I'd like to anoint a surprise scorer to fully embrace the spirit of it, but I think we know where the goals will come from. So, I'll give the nod to T.J. Brodie, who has been everything the Leafs needed and more, even if it's not obvious to the untrained eye. It's hard to be dominant. It's harder to be dominant while essentially being a ghost, which is what Brodie has achieved in his first season with Toronto.

Prediction:

Leafs in four or five.

WINNIPEG, MB - APRIL 28: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers and Mark Scheifele #55 of the Winnipeg Jets take a first period face-off at the Bell MTS Place on April 28, 2021 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
WINNIPEG, MB - APRIL 28: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers and Mark Scheifele #55 of the Winnipeg Jets take a first period face-off at the Bell MTS Place on April 28, 2021 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Oilers (2) vs. Jets (3)

This has been an unbelievable season for the Edmonton Oilers. The very best version of Connor McDavid fused with another standout campaign from Leon Draisaitl has meant more in the big picture for Edmonton, largely because the team has performed much better in support of them. 

Goaltender Mike Smith has contributed an outlier season as a fringe Vezina Trophy candidate. Darnell Nurse has been a force, steadying Tyson Barrie at even strength and almost singlehandedly overcoming the loss of Oscar Klefbom with a personal-best goal-scoring season. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jesse Puljujarvi have allowed Dave Tippett to mix and match comfortably in the top six. The pipeline has helped strengthen the foundation. It's all added up to a season that has the Oilers performing at an elite level. 

There are still questions to whether the Oilers are just that. And in a first-round matchup versus Winnipeg, it's hard to say that the Oilers can prove it. If anything, it seems like the perfect opportunity for McDavid and Draisaitl to run wild versus a poor defensive team, which is always the path of least resistance for the Oilers. That said, the adjustment to the postseason brand has been a difficult transition for Edmonton, so there is something to prove immediately for a team that was brushed aside by the Chicago Blackhawks in the bubble last summer.

The story around the Winnipeg Jets has changed dramatically over the course of the season. Believed to be a potential giant lurking in the weeds with a dominant netminder and impressive fleet of forwards, instead the Jets have both tumbled in the standings and allowed for a slow erosion of talent and, therefore, performance. Kevin Cheveldayoff's decision to stand pat at the deadline was questionable at best, as an apparent lack of commitment to the season, and the opportunity it presented, seemed to have a compounding impact on the story of Winnipeg's year. 

Still, if coach Paul Maurice can find a way to contain McDavid and Draisaitl, using what little defensive talent he has, Winnipeg will stand a shot. But it's going to take more than just brilliant shutdown work from Adam Lowry and an unconscious effort from Connor Hellebuyck; the Jets' best players have to show a renewed interest in playing a defensively-responsible brand. That seems like the only way the Jets re-route their current trajectory.

What have you done for me lately?

The last six weeks have been tremendous for the Edmonton Oilers. Winning three of their last four, on average, over that time period, the Oilers have performed at a level only the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche can match. They have leaned almost exclusively on McDavid and his march toward 100 points to drive these results, as special teams soared while five-on-five numbers lagged over that stretch. Accentuating McDavid has been a highly positive strategy for the Oilers, who, to the surprise of no one, are at their best when maximizing the touches for the best player in the world. But despite how dominant they have been, there are indications from the last six weeks of data that suggest the Oilers are playing beyond themselves. 

On the flip side, Winnipeg has the worst record among postseason-bound teams over the last six weeks, winning only seven of its last 18 games. They have played low-event, low-scoring games over that stretch, perhaps while trying to transition to more of a postseason style. Still, it hasn't looked particularly good on a team built for track meets with an ultra-skilled forward group playing in front of a difference-maker in net. The Jets seem to be searching for something right now, which is never a tremendous sign.

The Oilers will win if...

Smith doesn't fall off a cliff. It seems like it's a best-on-best, talent-versus-talent matchup between Edmonton and Winnipeg, and I think the Oilers have to be favored in that scenario — unless the goaltending swings, hard, in the opposite direction. Smith is a boom or bust guy, and the Oilers just don't have capable support in Mikko Koskinen. 

The Jets will win if...

There is only so much Hellebuyck can do, but his best, if coupled with struggles from his counterpart, is the most reasonable path to a victory for Winnipeg based on the matchup.

Series Hero

It's McDavid's time to shine. With seven goals and 22 points in nine games versus the Jets this season, McDavid has been at his best versus this single opponent in what's been the greatest offensive campaign of an entire generation. If it's anything like the regular season, we could see prodigious numbers from the game's best player, especially if the series is extended in any way.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

Nugent-Hopkins is a key player for the Oilers. In the "In Case of Emergency, Break Glass" scenario, McDavid and Draisaitl hook up on the top line, demanding that another player steps up on the second unit. Nugent-Hopkins has been able to provide that recently for Tippett, even if McDavid and Draisaitl have been separated of late. Still, Nugent-Hopkins remains very important to the basic functionality of this group, and will always be overlooked.

Prediction:

Oilers is five.