The Toronto Maple Leafs' loss to the Montreal Canadiens in a 2-1 thriller on Thursday night was far more costly than just the opening game of a Best-of-7 playoff series.
Early in the game, Toronto lost their captain, John Tavares in a frightening injury that forced him to leave the ice and be carried out on a stretcher. The thumbs-up sign was encouraging from Taveres as he passed his teammates, but the Maple Leafs ended up losing a nail-bitter. On Saturday, they enter Game 2 with even more questions and doubts.
In what was expected to be a relatively breezy path for Toronto as the North Division's top seed, the Maple Leafs suddenly find themselves with their backs to the wall. "Must win" might be too strong a statement, but there's a world of difference between being 1-1 as opposed to 0-2 in a playoff series. The margin for error narrows.
Much attention has focused on the injury and the Leafs' captain's prospects for returning. Although the initial daignosis about Tavares is encouraging, his teammates will have to prepare to play without him in the lineup, at least in the short term. Tavares played all 56 regular-season games in 2021. He scored 19 goals and added 31 assists.
Though the injury was accidental, it was indicative of Montreal's aggressive style of play. In Game 1, Montreal was the far more physical team. The Canadiens outhit Toronto 55-27. Although the Maple Leafs dominated puck possession throughout all three period, Montreal was the team that capitalized on their rare chances to score, whereas Toronto missed the net far too many times.
Toronto will have to play better. Fast.
Back in January, the Maple Leafs were the odds-on favourites to win the North Division, and they led the pack of Canadian teams from start to finish. Toronto ended the regular season with a 35-14-7 record. Meanwhile, Montreal limped into the playoffs as the fourth-seed, finishing the season at 24-21-11. While Toronto's playoff woes historially have been well-documented, most observers thought the Leafs were a shoe-in to get past the outgunned Habs in the first round. Now, Montreal has a great opportunity to take solid command of the series and return home with a 2-0 lead, that is, if they can somehow repeat their performance of Game 1 on Saturday.
But wait – can Montreal really take two road games from the Maple Leafs? Yes, it's absolutely possible. Note that "home ice" doesn't mean as much this season as in years past.
Thought it's a small sample size, the North Division has had three playoff games. The road team/underdog has cashed in all three games. The fact that there are no fans at the games in the Canadian venues, and the void of atmosphere has neutralize the home advantage. Last night, the Winnipeg Jets completed a sweep of both games in Edmonton. Tonight, Montreal is looking to follow suit.
Montreal probably has value at the price of +160.
That said, the real difference here might be Jack Campbell in the net for the Leafs. He is an impressive 17-3-2 in his starts this season, allowing only 2.15 goals on average. The Canadiens' Carey Price is 12-7-0 and allows 2.64 goals, which is a half goal more per game. Advantage: Toronto.
The missing firepower on offense for Toronto combined with Campbell in the net for the Leafs makes a wager on the total a more compelling pick in tonight's game.
Prediction: The Leafs should bounce back under normal circumstances, but laying -180 is way too steep a price. Montreal might be worth a bet if you have to pick a side based simply on value. The much wiser pick is on the total. These two teams have gone 2-6-1 to the UNDER in their nine games this season. With the added playoff intensity and the Maple Leafs missing their captain (out indefinitely), we should see another close game determined by a late goal. Forecast – Toronto 2, Montreal 1.
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