The Montreal Canadiens host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday in a potential playoff preview that has all of Canada abuzz, though quite a few obstacles remain before the two rivals can start planning a postseason date.
For the Canadiens, just getting into the Stanley Cup playoffs is the first priority. The Habs picked up a crucial 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames on Monday, increasing Montreal’s lead over the Flames to six points for the fourth and final North Division playoff spot.
The Flames won the first two meetings of the three-game set in Calgary, but Montreal (21-17-9, 51 points) turned in a strong defensive performance on Monday. The Canadiens held the Flames to just 22 shots, with goalie Jake Allen making 21 saves.
The game “was a grind,” according to defenseman Shea Weber, but typical of the intense hockey the Habs can expect over their final nine games of the regular season.
“There’s still a lot of work left to do,” Weber said. “That was obviously a step in the right direction (to) give us a little bit more breathing room, but (we) definitely have to keep going. … There’s no time to sit back.”
Weber’s power-play marker in the first period snapped a personal 21-game goal drought. The Canadiens have struggled with the extra attacker for much of the season, but they have now scored a power-play goal in three of their last four games.
Tyler Toffoli scored the game-winner in the second period. Toffoli has scored in four consecutive games and has six total goals over his last seven contests.
Montreal is still only 4-8-0 over its last 12 games and hasn’t posted consecutive victories since a three-game winning streak from March 20 to April 1.
The Maple Leafs (30-13-5, 65 points) have won their last two games, both road victories over the Winnipeg Jets. First-place Toronto is seven points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and eight points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets in the race for the North Division crown.
Forward Alex Kerfoot said the Leafs “want to be peaking at the right time (and) playing well in all facets of our game” as the playoffs approach, but he noted that the team isn’t getting ahead of itself.
“We’re still jockeying for position here,” Kerfoot said. “So, every game matters. Every game counts.”
The Maple Leafs and Canadiens are currently lined up to be first-round opponents, which would mark the first postseason series between the two clubs since the 1979 playoffs.
Even before a postseason meeting could become reality, the Leafs and Habs will become very familiar with each other. Toronto and Montreal play four more times between Wednesday and May 8.
Montreal forward Jonathan Drouin has been placed on long-term injured reserve. The Canadiens announced Wednesday that he is taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team for personal reasons.
Paul Byron (lower-body injury) is questionable for the Canadiens’ lineup.
Allen is likely to be back in net for the Habs, as regular starter Carey Price is still in concussion protocol.
Since the Leafs also play on Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks, Jack Campbell and David Rittich will very likely split goaltending duties over the back-to-back games. Campbell is the more probable candidate to face Montreal.
Toronto captain John Tavares is on an eight-game points streak. Over his last 11 games, Tavares has 16 points (seven goals, nine assists).
The Maple Leafs are 4-2-0 against the Canadiens this season, while the Canadiens are 2-3-1.
–Field Level Media