Once the Maple Leafs finish their regular season on Friday night, they’re going to have some time to collect their playoff thoughts.
And those thoughts, we learned late Tuesday, will centre around the Montreal Canadiens.
The Leafs and Canadiens will meet in in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1978-79. That became fact when the Winnipeg Jets beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-0, clinching third place in the North Division.
The Jets’ victory ensured the Canadiens will end the season in fourth place, setting up a showdown with the Leafs, who clinched the division title with a win against Montreal this past Saturday.
In 10 games between the Leafs and Canadiens during this truncated season, the Leafs ruled with a record of 7-2-1. Toronto outscored Montreal 34-25.
The Leafs are 18 points ahead of their Original Six rivals in the standings and will enter the best-of-seven series as the clear favourite and with home-ice advantage.
The most recent time the Leafs defeated the Canadiens in the playoffs was in 1967, when Toronto beat Montreal in six games to win the Cup. And you know how many Cups the Leafs have won since.
The earliest the Leafs will start what they hope will be a successful Cup run will be May 19, five nights after they skate off the ice in Winnipeg following their finale against the Jets.
“We’re trying to get some pretty important pieces back and those extra couple of days to heal and recover and build yourself up to get ready to play could be really useful,” centre Auston Matthews said.
“For me personally, maybe a couple days (off between the end of the regular season and the playoffs is fine) and then you get right into it. I’m not sure a lot of guys are fans of four or five days (off), but in the end, you still have to go out there and play.”
The indications are that forwards Zach Hyman (knee), Riley Nash (knee) and Nick Foligno (upper body) all will be good to go for Game 1. Hyman and Nash probably won’t play until the playoff opener, while Foligno will be a game-time decision for the game in Ottawa on Wednesday. And the extra days off could give defenceman Zach Bogosian (shoulder) the breathing room he needs to return.
What’s more, we would suspect that the majority of Leafs are playing with the all-encompassing bumps and bruises. More days for minor issues to heal will be a bonus.
And this isn’t a club that has given any sign that too much time off would be a detriment.
Either way, coach Sheldon Keefe shrugged.
“It’s whatever they tell us it’s going to be,” Keefe said of the opening date. “What I say or what I think is irrelevant. We’ve got to deal with what we’ve got in front of us and if it ends up being the 19th or 20th or something in that neighbourhood, which it sounds like it’s going to be, we have to be ready.
“I think it gives us enough opportunity to prepare. Preparation isn’t going to be much of an issue, no matter who our opponent is. We’ve played them lots this season, and seen a ton of them in the division.
“We will be prepared no matter when the games are. Whenever they tell us to play, we’ll be ready to go.”
The Jets and Edmonton Oilers will meet in the other North Division first-round series.
Frederik Andersen, slated to make a return to the Leafs crease on Wednesday from a knee injury, is a middling 8-6-3 with an .887 save percentage against Ottawa in his career … Count on Matthews to add to his NHL-high 40 goals. In eight games against Ottawa this season, Matthews has nine goals. In his career, it’s 22 goals in 23 career games in the Battle of Ontario … Keefe said Nash will join the Leafs on the two-game trip, if only to get to know his Toronto teammates better. “He’s a confident guy, very intelligent, good demeanour about him and fits in well,” Keefe said. “A lot of good things that make us not concerned about the lack of time to adjust to new surroundings and new teammates.” … John Tavares said that during the time he was waiting for his new sticks to arrive after deciding to make a tweak to the blade, he used Pierre Engvall’s sticks for about a month. “The sticks just don’t come that quick right now with challenges that we face (in the pandemic),” Tavares said.