Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview

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For the first time since 1979 the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are taking their rivalry to the playoffs.

The Maple Leafs owned the regular season series with a 7-2-1 mark as they put together one of their best regular season records in franchise history.

Toronto is definitely the favorite to come out of the North Division playoffs, but for that to happen they will have to do something they have not done in more than 15 years — win a playoff series.

Montreal, meanwhile, followed a busy offseason that saw massive roster overhaul by taking the fourth playoff spot in the North Division. Their overall record is a small improvement from a year ago, but might still be a disappointment given how well they started and the money they spent in the offseason.

MAPLE LEAFS VS. CANADIENS – series livestream link

Thursday, May 20: Canadiens at Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
Saturday, May 22: Canadiens at Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Monday, May 24: Maple Leafs at Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET
Tuesday, May 25: Maple Leafs at Canadiens TBD
*Thursday, May 27: Canadiens at Maple Leafs TBD
*Saturday, May 29: Maple Leafs at Canadiens TBD
*Monday, May 31: Canadiens at Maple Leafs TBD

Maple Leafs – Canadiens Storylines

The pressure is on Toronto

All of the pressure.

By now you already know the history. The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff series since the 2003-04 season. The current core has made the playoffs four years in a row and lost in the First Round (or the Qualifying Round) each time, never taking any kind of substantial step forward.

That can not continue.

Not only because this group needs to have some kind of playoff success, but because this is going to the best chance this core has had yet. The roster is deep, and they are going to be the favorites in any of their North Division matchups through the first two rounds. You never want to put a championship or bust expectation on a team (it will almost always miss that mark) but the time has come for this team to finally advance. Another First Round exit would be unacceptable.

If they do not win at least one round, and maybe even two rounds, nobody is going to remember Auston Matthews‘ goal total in a shortened season (41 goals in 51 games), or Mitch Marner‘s offense, or the team’s franchise-best regular season points percentage. If they do remember, they will probably not care.

Brendan Gallagher‘s return and impact

The good news for the Canadiens is they should be getting one of their best and most impactful players back for the start of the playoffs in Brendan Gallagher. He has not played since April 5 and the Canadiens have struggled without him, as they tend to do every single time he goes out of the lineup. They are a different team when he plays, and there is nobody to replace him when he does not. He is their best two-way player, their best possession driver, and has scored at a 30-goal pace (per 82 games) over the past four years.

Along with Gallagher, the Canadiens are also expected to have Carey Price back which creates another interesting situation to watch.

Price is the face of the franchise and has been capable of putting the team on his back in the past. He has not been that player this season, while Jake Allen has at times been the better player. Do the Canadiens roll with Price? Do they alternate? Do they go to Allen if needed? Interesting situation to watch.

Does Marc Bergevin need the Canadiens to win?

Bergevin has been the Canadiens’ general manager since 2012 and the team has never really accomplished much during his tenure. They have never really been truly bad, they have never been truly great, they are just kind of stuck in this middle ground of mediocrity. Over the past year Bergevin has been one of the most active and aggressive GMs in the league when it comes to overhauling the roster, spending big money and adding a lot of players. The results, again, are completely average. The Canadiens already changed coaches this season with similar results before and after the change. The players have changed. The coaches have changed. Only the GM has remained the same. Montreal has moved beyond the First Round just twice during Bergevin’s tenure, and zero times since the 2014-15 season.

Joe Thornton goes for the Stanley Cup

Not only is Toronto trying to win its first Stanley Cup since the Original Six days, but Joe Thornton is trying to add the final accomplishment that his Hall of Fame resume needs. A championship.

He joined the Maple Leafs on a one-year deal and has proven that he still has a little something left in the tank as a depth player. His 20 points in 43 games and ability to still drive possession makes him one of the more effective depth players in the league. If Toronto does end up winning he is going to no doubt play a role in that success.

One big question for Toronto: The goaltending

Frederik Andersen‘s injury and overall inconsistency this season opened the door for Jack Campbell to get significant playing time in the second half, and he did not disappoint.

Campbell put together a 17-2-2 record in his appearances with a .923 save percentage. It is by far the best stretch of his career. Given how little Andersen has played recently (just one game since March 20) and how much he has struggled in his 10 most recent starts there can not be much confidence in him at the moment. Campbell is pretty clearly the superior option at this moment.

He has been excellent. But how long can he maintain this level of play? Goaltending is the one position you do not want to be a question mark going into the playoffs.

One big question for Montreal: Can Cole Caufield be a difference maker?

For all of the roster moves Bergevin made before the season and during it, no addition to the lineup has the potential to be as impactful as the Canadiens’ top prospect, Cole Caufield.

He has only played 10 NHL games but he has already scored four goals (and five total points), with all of them coming over the past seven games. The Canadiens’ roster is full of players that could probably be best described as “really good.” They are useful, productive players that can produce and are good enough to be a part of a playoff team. But they lack a star-level player at forward that can take over a game and dominate it. Nick Suzuki has that sort of potential. But Caufield has more of it. If the Canadiens are going to have a chance in this series Caufield might have to be one of the players that makes a big impact.

Prediction: Maple Leafs in 6

Even though Toronto dominated the regular season series and has a 18-point lead in the standings, you should not completely write off the Canadiens. Along with Toronto’s goaltending question, the Canadiens are one of the best possession teams in the league, are getting some key players back in time for the start of the series, and have a young star just starting to make an impact. They can keep this competitive. But even if they do it is hard to imagine them actually winning it. Toronto still has the most talent and the better overall team, and that will show in this series.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.