North Division playoff preview
Anticipation is ramping up north of the border ahead of the first all-Canadian playoff matchups since 2015. The Leafs and Canadiens will meet in the postseason for the first time since 1979, while the last series between the Oilers and Jets happened in 1990.
1. Maple Leafs (-320) vs. 4. Canadiens (+240)
|55.63 (2nd)||xGF%*||53.00 (10th)|
|52.35 (10th)||CF%*||54.31 (6th)|
|56.78 (2nd)||HDCF%*||51.88 (12th)|
|9.41 (4th)||SH%*||7.52 (25th)|
|.922 (8th)||SV%*||.914 (22nd)|
|20.0 (16th)||PP%||19.2 (18th)|
|78.5 (23rd)||PK%||78.5 (22nd)|
|1/13||TOR 5 - MTL 4 OT||3.26 - 3.78||50.09 - 49.91||12 - 13||Andersen - Price|
|2/10||MTL 2 - TOR 4||2.36 - 3.66||56.73 - 43.27||10 - 11||Price - Andersen|
|2/13||TOR 1 - MTL 2||2.12 - 1.9||42.05 - 57.95||8 - 8||Andersen - Price|
|2/20||MTL 3 - TOR 5||2.05 - 2.62||50.31 - 49.69||12 - 9||Price - Andersen|
|4/7||TOR 3 - MTL 2||2.81 - 2.21||47.9 - 52.1||15 - 7||Campbell - Allen|
|4/12||MTL 4 - TOR 2||4.23 - 2.54||53.3 - 46.7||16 - 13||Allen - Campbell|
|4/28||MTL 1 - TOR 4||1.82 - 2.24||48.41 - 51.59||6 - 9||Allen - Campbell|
|5/3||MTL 3 - TOR 2 OT||2.65 - 2.59||40.04 - 59.96||5 - 9||Allen - Campbell|
|5/6||TOR 5 - MTL 2||4.16 - 2.42||62.06 - 37.94||16 - 7||Campbell - Primeau|
|5/8||TOR 3 MTL 2||2.09 - 1.33||48.1 - 51.9||9 - 7||Campbell - Allen|
The two Original Six franchises, which claim to hail from the mecca of hockey, will meet for the first time in the postseason in over 40 years, with a lot more than bragging rights up for grabs. The Leafs, aiming to win their first playoff series since 2004, are desperate to avoid another postseason failure, while the Canadiens are out to prove they're the force they resembled early in the season, as opposed to the toothless team that fell backwards into the playoffs.
The Leafs, universally regarded as the best team in the division, dominated the North from start to finish. They had a winning record against every team, sat atop the division in xGF%, and were far and away the most efficient at generating offense at five-on-five. Alex Kerfoot is the only roster player to finish below a 50 xGF% at five-on-five, and he came awfully close (49.93). Each of Toronto's top-six forwards finished above 55%, with Auston Matthews and the returning Zach Hyman surpassing the 60% mark.
Few teams are as good at driving play as the Leafs, who are also among the best at capitalizing on their opportunities, finishing fourth in five-on-five shooting percentage. That tally jumped a full point from last season, which could be in line for regression but is likelier just a product of the team's quality up front.
The only real concerns surrounding Toronto heading into the playoffs are special teams - both units finished in the bottom half of the league - and goaltending. Now goaltending shouldn't necessarily be a concern considering the season Jack Campbell put together - he finished top 16 in both GSAA and GSAx - but the body of work was small, and he's still a relatively unproven commodity who hasn't appeared in an NHL playoff game.
Montreal's season-long numbers pale in comparison to Toronto's, prompting questions as to what sort of chance it stands in this series. To answer that properly, the Canadiens' season has to be broken down in parts: They looked like a juggernaut early, stumbled into a slump prompting a coaching change, and then fell off a cliff trying to navigate a daunting second-half schedule brought on by a COVID-induced pause. As a result, it was very much a tale of two seasons for Montreal.
The team didn't have back-to-back nights off following the late-March pause, playing 25 games in 44 nights over the final six weeks of the season, including five back-to-backs. The Habs were at a rest disadvantage in 19 of those contests, including 13 of their last 15, and each of their last five games against the Leafs - two being their fourth matchup in six nights, two their third in four, and one their fifth in seven.
The overloaded schedule cost Montreal dearly, as it was near the league lead in man-games lost since the start of April, with Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber, Carey Price, Tomas Tatar, Joel Armia, and Paul Byron among those missing significant time. The Canadiens will have a fully healthy lineup for Game 1 for the first time since early in the season, which is essential given how this team needs to play to succeed.
Montreal's strength is its depth, and it needs to play relentless, in-your-face hockey to be successful. The only way to maintain that sort of intensity is to continuously roll four lines. When healthy, that's not a problem for them. The Canadiens like to use their speed in transition and play heavy on the forecheck. When all four lines are rolling, they're capable of getting pucks deep, grinding down low, and wearing teams down. It's exactly the sort of style the Leafs have struggled with in years past, and while this season's team seems to have adapted, we've still yet to see the results in a playoff-type environment.
Montreal played this style in the first half of the season with a bit more of a normal schedule, and the returns were significantly better. Over the first 31 games - up until the COVID-19 pause - the Canadiens were second in the NHL in goal share (59.58%), expected goal share (56.39%), and CF% (56.29%) at five-on-five. Post-pause, they were 30th in goal share (40.79%), 18th in expected goal share (48.89%), and 13th in CF% (51.75%). If they're going to be competitive in this series, they'll have to return to their early-season form and hope the second-half results were indeed an anomaly created by a rash of injuries and monstrous schedule.
If we treat the regular season as two separate entities for Montreal, then we'd have to look to the first four head-to-head meetings between these teams for a more appropriate picture of what we might expect in this series.
Toronto still came out ahead in those meetings with a 3-1-0 record but relied heavily on what was at the time a scorching-hot power play. It has since run dry. The Canadiens outscored the Leafs and controlled 54% of the expected goal share at five-on-five in those games. Now special teams can be streaky, and if Toronto can find a way to replicate that success on the power play - it certainly has the personnel - then this series could be over in a hurry. For Montreal to succeed, it needs to keep Toronto's power play at bay and get back to the strong five-on-five play that's typically carried this team in years past.
Whether that's enough for Montreal to actually win the series remains to be seen, but it's the blueprint for at least keeping it competitive.
For the Leafs, winning Game 1 feels massive. A loss would breathe hope into a Canadiens team in desperate need of some and send panic signals flying across Toronto. The Leafs have dealt with very little adversity this season, and there would be no worse time to start for a team with a massive mental hurdle to clear in this postseason.
Toronto should win this series, but -320 is a steep price to pay. A lot has to go right for Montreal to pull off the upset, so I'm not rushing to bet +240 either. But a healthy and rested Canadiens team will make the Leafs earn it, so I'd rather scoop up a generous price on this series to go the distance.
Pick: Over 6.5 games (+220)
2. Oilers (-215) vs. 3. Jets (+175)
|49.82 (15th)||xGF%*||46.79 (23rd)|
|49.82 (16th)||CF%*||48.3 (18th)|
|49.50 (16th)||HDCF%*||44.63 (29th)|
|8.85 (7th)||SH%*||8.60 (9th)|
|.915 (21st)||SV%*||.923 (6th)|
|28.1 (1st)||PP%||23.0 (7th)|
|82.2 (10th)||PK%||80.5 (14th)|
|1/24||WPG 3 - EDM 4||2.63 - 4.31||45.9 - 54.1||13 - 21||Brossoit - Koskinen|
|1/26||WPG 6 - EDM 4||3.89 - 2.02||53.3 - 46.7||15 - 9||Hellebuyck - Koskinen|
|2/15||EDM 6 - WPG 5||3.09 - 2.02||57.28 - 42.72||14 - 6||Koskinen - Hellebuyck|
|2/17||EDM 2 - WPG 3||3.21 - 2.81||45.99 - 54.01||8 - 8||Smith - Hellebuyck|
|3/18||EDM 2 - WPG 1||1.41 - 2.05||46.3 - 53.7||3 - 7||Koskinen - Brossoit|
|3/20||EDM 4 - WPG 2||3.92 - 2.7||54.64 - 45.36||15 - 8||Smith - Hellebuyck|
|4/17||WPG 0 - EDM 3||1.87 - 3.17||45.5 - 54.5||3 - 18||Hellebuyck - Smith|
|4/26||WPG 1 - EDM 6||2.22 - 2.32||49.21 - 50.79||12 - 5||Hellebuyck - Smith|
|4/28||WPG 1 - EDM 3||2.25 - 4.43||44.29 - 55.71||9 - 12||Hellebuyck - Koskinen|
Connor McDavid produced arguably the greatest individual season in NHL history, and the surging Oilers will hope it translates to postseason success as they head into a first-round series against a Jets team that lost its way over the season's final month.
Winnipeg doesn't deserve a free pass for losing nine games in regulation over its final 12, but its struggles down the stretch can largely be attributed to Nikolaj Ehlers' absence. Ehlers is overlooked in a division with McDavid and Matthews, but he was having a Hart-caliber season before a shoulder injury kept him out of the team's final nine games.
Ehlers was one of just three Jets players to control over 55% of the expected goal share. He was also the team leader in CF% at five-on-five, and Winnipeg scored an astounding 67.99% of its goals this season when he was on the ice. To put that into perspective, the Oilers scored 68.53% of their goals with McDavid on the ice. Winnipeg needs him back and healthy - he's been a full participant in practice, so it appears to be all systems go - for this to be a competitive series.
The Jets also need Connor Hellebuyck to be at his best. The netminder is a close second on the list of players in this series who can single-handily win their team a game, behind McDavid. The reigning Vezina winner pieced together another excellent campaign, finishing second in the NHL with 13.72 goals saved above expected, but he struggled a great deal against Edmonton.
He posted a miserable 3.96 goals-against average, .877 save percentage, and minus-6.3 GSAx in seven games versus the Oilers. He saved six goals below expected against Edmonton, compared to 20 above expected against the rest of the North Division. He saved at least 1.5 goals above expected in 12 starts this year - not a single one of those was against the Oilers. There's no reason to believe this is anything other than an outlier - he saved nearly four goals above expected in three starts versus Edmonton last season, allowing just three goals at five-on-five.
Improved play from Hellebuyck will go a long way in helping the Jets not get absolutely roasted by McDavid like they did during the regular season because, at the end of the day, these are the two guys who will likely decide this series. McDavid had 22 points on 34 goals scored by the Oilers against the Jets this year, including at least two in all nine games.
Winnipeg simply didn't have an answer for McDavid this season. The Oilers controlled two-thirds of the expected goal share at even strength with McDavid on the ice and scored over 80% of the goals. McDavid is the best player in the world by a comfortable margin, capable of winning any game - or series, for that matter - on his own, and Leon Draisaitl is an elite running mate. Still, what this Edmonton roster has in star power, it lacks in depth.
Not letting McDavid score 2.45 points per game in this series is a must for the Jets, and it puts added pressure on them winning the remainder of the matchups. One of Winnipeg's biggest assets is its depth up front - there's not a weak spot on that top six - and Edmonton is vulnerable when McDavid isn't on the ice. The Oilers probably have the worst bottom-six forward group in the playoffs.
Guys like Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry, and Mason Appleton have also had really productive seasons for Winnipeg. They'll have ample opportunity to provide secondary scoring that the Oilers struggle to get - the kind that typically proves vital in the postseason. A strong contribution from the bottom six, coupled with the elevated playoff performances we've come to expect from Winnipeg's stars up front, would make things very interesting in this series.
Edmonton's head-to-head dominance over the Jets this year resulted in an inflated series price, but there's more than meets the eye when you dig into the scheduling. The Oilers had the rest advantage in seven of the nine meetings - the other two were neutral. The Oilers played the Jets with at least four days off in between games on three separate occasions, with Winnipeg having at most one day off. In five of the nine meetings, the Jets came in facing either a back-to-back or three-in-four situation. They also were without Ehlers and Lowry for the last two, both losses.
The teams will be on a level playing field in the playoffs. While the Oilers have the two best skaters in the series, the Jets' significant edge in depth up front, coupled with improved play from Hellebuyck - he can't possibly play any worse than he did in the season series against Edmonton - creates some real value on the underdog at this price.
Pick: Jets (+175)
Alex Moretto is theScore's supervising editor of sports betting. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.
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