By Cole Parkinson
After 56 regular-season games, the NHL’s North Division has finally been set for this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs — Edmonton vs. Winnipeg and Toronto vs. Montreal.
While Calgary and Vancouver played their final game on Wednesday afternoon, the majority of Canadian hockey fans had already shifted their focus to what promises to be an exciting first round of all-Canadian matchups.
Looking to the West first, Edmonton takes on the recently struggling Winnipeg Jets.
Winnipeg hit the ditch in the last little while where they went 5-9 over the final month and they head into the playoffs as the three seed in the North.
Winnipeg had three goals per game (12th), 2.7 goals against (22nd), went 23 per cent on the power play (seventh) and killed off 80.5 per cent of their shorthand opportunities (13th).
The Jets have one of the best goalies in the league in Connor Hellebuyck, and he was good again this year finishing with a record of 24-17-3 and a save percentage of .916.
But even with a good goalie, the Jets struggled allowing goals and finished near the bottom of the league in goals against, and now their team is going to need to shut down two of the best players in the league — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Winnipeg’s offence is no slouch with Mark Scheifele (63 points), Kyle Connor (50 points), Nik Ehlers (46 points) and Blake Wheeler (46 points).
They also have a very good third line when healthy with Andrew Copp (39 points), Mason Appleton (25 points) and Adam Lowry (24 points).
The problem for Winnipeg is Copp and Ehlers are still not confirmed for Game 1 but it wouldn’t be shocking if they did play in the first game.
Moving over to Edmonton, it’s obvious why people are pointing to the Oilers as the team to win the series.
McDavid finished the season with 105 points in 56 games while Draisaitl had 84 in the game amount of games.
Jesse Puljujarvi finally returned to Edmonton and put up great numbers (25 points) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continued to be solid with 35 points.
Their defence also contributed with Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse finishing with 48 and 36 points, respectively.
As a team, they finished with 3.3 goals per game (sixth), 2.8 goals against (17th), a 27.6 per cent power play (first) and an 82.5 per cent penalty kill (ninth).
I think it’s fair to say many people had concerns about the Oilers’ goaltending heading into the new season, but Mike Smith turned back the clock.
Posting a .923 save percentage in 32 games, the 39-year-old has easily cemented himself as the number one for the Oilers.
I truly think this one is going the distance, and I think it will be a must-watch series for not only Jets/Oilers fans, but any hockey fan.
I’ll take the Oilers in seven.
Out east, we have the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Montreal Canadiens for the first time since 1979.
And I’ll admit, I’m a die-hard Maple Leafs fan so of course, I’ll have some rooting interest but, I’ve lived my entire life watching the Leafs fail over and over.
Starting in Montreal, I know people are saying the Habs may not even win a game, and while the Leafs are certainly more talented than the Canadiens, we should know by now it’s not skill that wins in the playoffs.
The Habs will need Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson and Shea Weber back to create some havoc at both ends of the ice.
I think if the Habs can get underneath the skin and frustrate the Maple Leafs’ forwards, it could lead to plenty of tight games and if only one or two goals are needed to win, I don’t see why the Habs couldn’t win.
Tyler Toffoli had a fantastic year scoring 28 goals in 52 games, Jeff Petry continued to be one of the best defenders in Canada as he accumulated 42 points and Nick Suzuki showed he could be exactly what the Habs have been looking for in a first-line centre as he put forth a 41-point campaign.
Montreal scored 2.8 goals per game (16th), allowed 2.9 a game (14th), scored at a rate of 19.2 per cent on the power play (17th) and killed 78.5 per cent on the penalty kill (t-23rd).
In the playoffs, teams can only go as far as goaltending will take them and Montreal is hoping Carey Price is ready to return for Game 1.
And while Price is worthy of being called one of the best tenders in the league, he didn’t have a great regular season.
Price suffered a concussion in April and has yet to play another game, though he and Gallagher did get loaned to the AHL for a conditioning stint this past weekend.
Statistically, Price didn’t have a great year posting a .901 save percentage, but the playoffs are a different animal.
We all saw what he did last year in the playoffs where he had a .936 save percentage and a 1.78 goals-against average.
Let’s be honest, the Maple Leafs should win this series.
They have a much better forward core, their defence has been miles better than in previous seasons and Jack Campbell has been better than anyone could have asked for.
The Maple Leafs have the best goal scorer in the league in Auston Matthews, who potted 41 goals in 52 games and Mitch Marner had a great year next to him where he put up 67 points in 55 games.
John Tavares (50 points), William Nylander (42 points) and Zach Hyman (33 points) were all instrumental in leading the Leafs to their first division win in over 15 years.
The addition of veteran leadership like Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Zach Bogosian and Nick Foligno was great for the regular season but we all know they’re in Toronto for what they can bring in the playoffs.
It certainly seems this is the best Leafs’ team since the early 2000s but the next step is the hardest.
Over the regular season, they scored 3.3 goals per game (sixth) and allowed 2.6 (24th).
Special teams are interesting with the Leafs because while their power play sat at 20 per cent (16th) at the seasons’ end, it was abysmal over the final month and a half of the season.
Their penalty kill started slow but rebounded over the same stretch the power play struggled and they finished at 78.5 per cent (t-23rd).
Looking at goaltending, it was assumed Frederik Andersen would once again be the starter, but with injuries, that didn’t happen.
Instead, Campbell had to start 22 games where he posted a 17-3-2 record and a save percentage of .921.
While Freddie is back from injury, it’s Campbell’s net.
He has zero NHL playoff experience but honestly, who cares?
Legends are made in the playoffs and if Campbell can even get close to replicating his regular season, the Leafs will be in great shape.
So do I think the Leafs will win? Yes.
Can I see a future where the Leafs are once again eliminated in the first round? Yup.
But this team feels different, and while I think the Habs will throw absolutely everything they have, I have the Leafs in six games.
With the American teams already going, I’ll give you picks that I submitted for this year’s NHL Playoff Bracket Challenge, which was submitted this past weekend.
In the East Division, I have the New York Islanders over the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven and the Washington Capitals over the Boston Bruins in six.
In the West, the Colorado Avalanche over the St. Louis Blues in five and the Vegas Golden Knights over the Minnesota Wild in seven.
Finally, in the Central, I have the Carolina Hurricanes over the Nashville Predators in five and the Tampa Bay Lightning over the Florida Panthers in six games.
It’s the most exciting time of the year for hockey fans, and while my nerves will be pushed every Leafs game day, I can’t wait for all of the games.