Canadian clubs renew playoff hostilities as North Division prepares for puck drop
Oilers-Jets, Maple Leafs-Canadiens meet in highly-anticipated 1st round clashes
In times of crisis, people often turn to creature comforts to help them get through — baking bread, whipping up favourite family recipes or flipping through childhood photo albums.
Hockey fans of a certain age are set to experience a similar type of escape thanks to the NHL North Division playoffs, an all-Canadian affair necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions on cross-border travel.
Edmonton, which dropped a stunning 4-1 contest to the Jets on Wednesday, clashes with Winnipeg for the first time in the playoffs since 1990, when Bill Ranford backstopped the Oilers to a Game 7 Smythe Division semifinal win over Dale Hawerchuk and the Jets.
Toronto and Montreal meet for the first time in a playoff series since 1979, when Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson led the Canadiens to a 4-0 sweep over Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming and the Maple Leafs.
Puck drops in Toronto tonight.
WATCH | CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo previews North Division playoff matchups:
"The first time since the late '70s that these two historic franchises have played — I've been a part of this rivalry for nine years now and it never gets old," says Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher. "The fans are so passionate, they're so excited. It's going to be awesome for us as players to be a part of."
The stands will remain empty given Canadian public health regulations, although spectators are on hand for playoff games in the U.S.
"We know we're going to feel the fans' emotion," Gallagher says. "But it's very unfortunate that they can't be in the building, because this is going to be special."
Here's the breakdown:
Edmonton vs. Winnipeg
The Oilers enter this series as heavy favourites after winning seven-of-nine regular season games against the Jets, who have struggled to contain Connor McDavid.
The Edmonton captain dissected the defence in those nine games, piling up a ridiculous seven goals and 22 points.
The Jets must find a way to minimize the damage inflicted by No. 97 — and his counterpart Leon Draisaitl – if they hope to pull off an upset.
"You're not stopping this guy completely," says Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice. "If you just do it right, if you just play the right way against Connor McDavid, he's still putting up points against you. He's that level of talent. You just can't help him."
WATCH | Looking ahead to the NHL playoffs:
The injury-plagued Jets lost nine of their last 12 regular-season games, but help is on the way given speedy Nikolaj Ehlers and gritty Andrew Copp could return to the lineup. The Jets are strong up the middle and their offensive depth could cause problems for Edmonton's third and fourth lines.
And the Jets have 2020 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck in net, so anything can happen in a seven-game series.
"Our players recognize that there's a lot of work ahead," Oilers head coach Dave Tippett says. "Our team has to be at its best."
Toronto vs. Montreal
The talent-laden Leafs out-classed the Canadiens in the regular season with seven wins in nine games. First-place Toronto finished the campaign with an 18-point lead over fourth-place Montreal.
But the pressure is squarely on Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and a Toronto team that hasn't won a playoff series since 2003-04.
WATCH | CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo reflects on Leafs-Habs playoff rivalry:
"It's kind of like the Red Sox and Yankees, I guess, in a way — two fanbases, two organizations with a lot of rich history in this league for the last 100-plus years," says Matthews, who led the NHL in goals with 41 in 52 games. "It's going to be tight — not a lot of space out there."
Campbell emerged as a legitimate starter in the regular season with a goals against average of 2.15 and .921 save percentage. The NHL journeyman needs to show he can perform in the playoffs.
Montreal has perhaps the best of a generation in net in Carey Price, but he's struggled this season with a GAA of 2.64 and .901 save percentage. But Price is determined.
"He's calm, he's in control, and he's a competitor," says interim head coach Dominique Ducharme. "The guys know that he's going to rise at the right time."