Despite the storied history of both clubs, the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Montreal Canadiens to face off in Game 7 for just the second time in 16 playoff series (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET). The winner advances to battle the Winnipeg Jets in the next round of the postseason.
Here’s a look at some of the storylines:
The tribal loyalties of the two clubs have been well established on and off the ice, the latter perhaps most famously in Roch Carrier’s children’s book The Hockey Sweater, which was then animated by the National Film Board of Canada.
The playoff matchup pits the two NHL clubs with the most championships in league history. The Canadiens as a franchise have won 24 Stanley Cups, while the Maple Leafs hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup on 13 occasions.
But that history, in a modern context, can mislead. Toronto famously hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, so any Leafs fan under the age of, say, 54, likely has no memory of their club being the NHL champs.
While a 54-year-old Habs fan can laugh gleefully at that, given the fact their club has won 11 Stanley Cups since 1967, the Canadiens themselves are in a franchise-long 27-years-and counting championship drought. Such are the the perils of playing in a league that has 30-plus clubs, not just six.
| How the Leafs-Habs playoff rivalry came to be:
The Canadiens have won eight of 15 playoff meetings between the clubs historically. A couple of generations of NHL players have come and gone since the last meeting in 1979, when little-used Cam Connor, with the only playoff goal he ever scored for Montreal, helping to sink the dagger in for Leafs fans then with a key overtime winner.
The two clubs last faced off in a Game 7 in a playoff series in 1964. The Leafs won that one, and then went on to beat Detroit for the Cup.
The winner of this series advances to the North Division final and takes on the Winnipeg Jets, idle since May 24 after a sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.
Either Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe or Canadiens bench boss Dominique Ducharme will celebrate their first-ever NHL playoff series win on Monday night.
“We’re confident. We’re going to Toronto to head to Winnipeg,” Ducharme said on Sunday.
| Canadiens tie playoff series with Quebec reopening:
Montreal has good reason to be confident, or at least feel like they have nothing to lose. The Canadiens overcame a coaching change in February, shrugged off a dispirited Game 4 defeat that represented their eighth loss in their last nine games at that point, and then survived the late rallies by Toronto in the fifth and sixth games.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are dealing with the metaphorical monkey on the back, and not just because they finished with 18 more points than the Habs in the regular season.
Toronto last won a playoff series in 2004. To put that time span in context, in 2004, Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber was a teen winning a Memorial Cup with Kelowna Rockets and Leafs forward Auston Matthews was not yet seven years old, starting his ascension through the Arizona minor hockey system. John Tortorella lifted the Stanley Cup that season with Tampa Bay, the fourth-last NHL team he’s coached.
But despite the relative youth of the Toronto club, one veteran sports wag in the city has written that Game 7 is nothing less than the stage for Matthews and Mitch Marner to “salvage their reputations.”
The game on Saturday at Bell Centre in Montreal saw fans in a major Canadian sports venue for the first time since before the pandemic in early 2020. Quebec officials signed off on a scenario in which 2,500 fans were allowed into the 21,000-plus capacity building.
On Monday morning, the Ontario government announced that 550 fully vaccinated frontline health-care workers would be able to attend Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
“This small token of appreciation doesn’t measure up to the sacrifices they’ve made during COVID-19, but it is an opportunity for us to recognize their heroic efforts to keep each and every one of us safe,” said Premier Doug Ford in a statement.
How we got here
The last two games have offered a cavalcade of emotions for fans of both clubs. Toronto had been one shot away from eliminating the Canadiens and advancing to the second round of the playoffs in each game, but it’s also true that Montreal outplayed the Leafs for long stretches in both of those contests.
Leafs fans feared the worst given their recent franchise history when captain John Tavares suffered head and knee injuries early in Game 1 in a scary incident and was hospitalized. The Leafs did well to keep their composure after that, but Habs goalie Carey Price was, in the words of teammate Josh Anderson, “an absolute wall” in a 2-1 Montreal win.
| Kotkaniemi propels Habs to OT victory over Leafs in Game 6:
Toronto’s William Nylander scored in the first four games of the series and the rest of the Maple Leafs rallied in Tavares’s absence as the Ontario club took a 3-1 series lead.
The Canadiens controlled the play for much of Game 5 but coughed up a three-goal lead to lead to overtime. Two Toronto players then made mistakes on the same play, with Nick Suzuki converting on the rare overtime 2-on-0 to give the Habs new life in the series.
Game 6 was more competitive, but Montreal again neutralized Toronto for much of the game, with Price stopping anything coming his way. The Canadiens scored two in the third period, but Toronto then matched that.
Toronto appeared to be carrying the play for the most part in overtime, but Jesperi Kotkaniemi snapped a shot past Leafs goalie Jack Campbell to force Game 7.
Who to in Game 7
Matthews rallied the troops in the wake of the Tavares injury with a four-point effort in the Game 2 victory for Toronto. He’s tallied just one assist in the subsequent four games. To call him a disappointment would be a stretch — he’s fired 20 shots on net in the last four and won more faceoffs than he lost — but players of his calibre are asked to produce in moments like this.
Obviously the play between the pipes will be critical. Price and Campbell have both impressed in the series, but there’s a disparity in big game experience. The Montreal goalie has played a trio of elimination games in the NHL playoffs in addition to a wealth of big international contests, while Campbell is starting his first Game 7 in the NHL postseason.
Price has allowed just one first-period goal in the series thus far.
Then there’s the Toronto blue line. It’s unclear if the banged-up Jake Muzzin is good to go, so how he’ll look if he suits up or how the Leafs pairings will be configured in his absence will be of note.
The NHL hasn’t set a date for Game 1 of the North final, but the league has wasted little time in getting the postseason rounds rolling. The Vegas Golden Knights, for example, played Colorado on Sunday in their second-round opener after just one full day off following a seven-game first-round victory.
Toronto won six of 10 games during this regular season against Winnipeg, while Montreal lost six of nine against the Jets.
Winnipeg, in both incarnations of the Jets, has never faced Montreal or Toronto in the postseason.
The reconfiguration of divisions this season due to COVID-19 guarantees a Canadian team will be among the final four teams competing for the Stanley Cup, for the first time since the Jets reached that stage in 2018. A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since the 1992-1993 run of the Canadiens.