In many ways, this sounds like the Winnipeg Jets issue and their Connor McDavid issue. Matthews torched the North Division throughout the season, his remarkable 41 goals giving him an easy path to his first Rocket Richard Trophy.
The Canadiens have faced the Maple Leafs 10 times this year, with two different head coaches, Claude Julien and Dominique Ducharme. Montreal has won just three of those games and scored 11 goals in the red in the process.
Unfortunately in this game, the Canadiens – whose fundamental strength remains their ability to control the pace of play evenly – the team finished second in the National Hockey League in shot differential this year (54.3 % Corsi%) – were seven goals worse than the Maple Leafs in 500 minutes played.
The Matthews line in particular posed problems for Canadians. The teams traded shots with Matthews on the ice, but the expected goals and actual goals were significantly higher evenly:
One of the challenges with Matthews – and his line more broadly – is that they not only tend to generate significant offensive volume, but also have the shooters to turn those scoring chances into goals. It’s a deadly combination and one of the biggest reasons the Maple Leafs were tied for third in the league in even-matched scores (3.0 goals per 60 minutes played).
If you look at Toronto’s offensive shooting profile with Matthews on the ice (HockeyViz), it’s easy to see why they were so electric. The low lunge and areas between the circles were conducive to shooting opportunities, with common ends like Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman making games all over the ice – a powder keg when you have a player with Matthews’ marksmanship skill:
Looking at the regular season series data, it’s clear the Canadiens have been pushing to do two things: keep the third pair away from the Toronto lead line as much as possible, and get the Phillip Danault line up as much as possible against Matthews. Danault anchors a critical line of the Canadiens, and he’s usually armed with winger Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar.
Danault and Gallagher were both full participants in practice on Saturday and should be ready for Game 1. This group may not be the most effective at slowing down a player of Matthews’ caliber (and really, who is?), but they may be the best group of Canadians’ staff for this line of business. On a good day, this line can turbo-charge in extended offensive zone changes with intensive cycling and planking, which at least should take some puck possession time away from the Matthews line. .
From a defensive standpoint, Canadians certainly have questions. Shea Weber was visibly absent from training this weekend, but reports indicate he will be ready to play in the opener. That’s good news for a Montreal team that desperately needs two capable pairs to kick off Toronto’s much-vaunted offense.
Joël Edmundson and Jeff Petry both have had respectable numbers against the Matthews line this season; Weber’s pair weren’t as good in the goal department, but those three were at least able to own the puck for stretches against the Matthews line. This is still the best defense against deadly score lines:
Ultimately, the Montreal coaching staff will need a flawless effort across the board, with an extreme emphasis on limiting the Toronto attack to unique scenarios. The Canadiens are a very playful and talented team, but they drew a very difficult game against one of the league’s deadliest teams.
But if we know one thing about this series, it’s that Montreal isn’t going back anytime soon.
Données via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, NHL.co