Leafs ready for series vs. Canadiens to get ugly: 'It's going to be a war'

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discuss the mood around the Maple Leafs as they prepare for the NHL Playoffs.

TORONTO – Josh Anderson talks as hard as he hits.

Secrets vanish once you’ve played a team 10 times. So, Anderson knows as well as anyone the Montreal Canadiens’ path to a Round 1 upset over the Toronto Maple Leafs lies in the corners and around the crease. They must do their darndest to drain the skill out of the sport.

“The challenge for them is us being physical, and we’re going to be bringing that presence from when the puck drops. We’re going to continue that throughout the series,” Anderson said during this (overly) long lead-up to Thursday’s puck drop. “If that’s being mean, being physical against those top players, we’re going to do it for a full 60 minutes.

“It’s going to be a war out there.”

The Canadiens, losers of seven of 10 regular-season meetings against the Toronto Maple Leafs, are unanimous underdogs in a playoff series 42 years in the making.

Of all 16 playoff teams, the Habs had the worst season.

Their points percentage (.527) was lower than two teams (the Dallas Stars and New York Rangers) that failed to make the dance. They won fewer games (24) than three (Rangers, Calgary Flames and Philadelphia Flyers) non-playoff squads. Neither Montreal’s offence (2.82 goals per game) nor its defence (2.95 goals allowed per game) rated in the top half of the NHL.

But one thing Montreal excels at is checking, legally and illegally.

The Canadiens 27.9 hits per 60 minutes topped the league. They threw a whopping 10 more hits a game than the Maple Leafs (17.7 hits per 60), who ranked 27th in that category and lowest in the North. And they’ll bank on those extra blows adding up and wearing Toronto down over time.

Montreal’s 8:18 penalty minutes per game also tops all Canadian playoff teams, while the Leafs’ 6:57 PIM per game were the fewest in Canada.

Much like Toronto’s most recent post-season disappointment, against the fun-sucking Columbus Blue Jackets in 2020, the matchup promises to be a battle of identities.

The catch this time is that the Maple Leafs aren’t afraid to smear on their warpaint.

“We're far better equipped to handle whatever way the game wants to be played,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe asserted. “We also have the ability to initiate things ourselves.

“In terms of the confidence, we've played against Montreal 10 times here in the regular season and, statistically at least, they're right up at the top of league in physicality. So, we've dealt with that. We're used to it.”

Whether its maturing stars like Auston Matthews using his big frame and throwing a career-high hits himself or William Nylander driving the crease or Justin Holl scrumming anyone who touches Jack Campbell’s glove, there are plenty of examples of the “old” Leafs shedding their turn-the-other-cheek ways.

“We're going to play physical ourselves. I don't think we expect anything less," says Wayne Simmonds, who dropped the gloves with Montreal's Ben Chiarot in the season opener.

"It’s playoff time. Everyone's playing for a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and I think first and foremost starts with physicality, so it's nothing too new.”

And the long list of new Leafs have all chipped in to increase their unquantifiable grit quotient. Nick Foligno, Zach Bogosian, Joe Thornton, Wayne “Punch Your Head Off” Simmonds… soft men these are not. Zach Hyman and Jake Muzzin play an unblinking game, and even rookie Rasmus Sandin has turned heads with his stiff shoulders. Ask Blake Wheeler.

“We’ve got to be physical ourselves. Playoff hockey demands that,” Keefe said.

“We know it's going to go to a higher degree in the playoffs here, as it will from our team as well. It’s just part of the deal. And whether it's our players that have been on this team for the last number of years, they've grown through it and are ready to take it on, and the additions that we've made to our team throughout this season or in the offseason will help us in that regard.”

The second season presents a blank sheet to dispel the past and write fresh narratives. And it inevitably awakens with a triple shot of intensity.

Remember how Montreal led the NHL with 27.9 hits per 60 minutes in the regular season?

Well, 10 of the 12 playoff teams that have already played are averaging at least 34 hits per 60. The Vegas Golden Knights–Minnesota Wild series is averaging more than 115 hits per game.

The Canadiens will double down on the nasty early.

For Game 1, coach Dominique Ducharme will sit younger, slicker, faster talents like Jesperi Kotkanimei, Alexander Romanov and Cole Caufield. He’ll go with strength and experience, hoping to shape this into a meat-and-potatoes, dump-and-crunch affair.

Add the welcome return of a healthy Brendan Gallagher to Anderson and sneaky/savvy Corey Perry, and Montreal will crowd Campbell’s kitchen.

Protecting the crease has been a Leafs mandate all season long, but it has never been so critical as now. The trick will be balancing a fierce defence with the discipline to not get dragged into the inevitable distractions.

“We've got to compete and show up and be present, but we can't get caught in any sideshows,” Keefe said. “Our guys are going to be physical, and we're going to be physical with intelligence and be very purposeful with how we play.

“Like I said, we can play the game any way you want to play it, all the way throughout our lineup. And we've got to be aware of who the opposition is and what they do, what their strengths are. But the opposition's got lots to worry about with us as well.”

One-Timers: The Maple Leafs’ struggling power play will use a mix of two balanced units and one loaded-up unit in the series to keep Montreal on its toes…. Zach Bogosian (shoulder) is cleared for contact and expected to play soon. The defenceman took line rushes alongside Sandin on the third pairing at practice Wednesday…. Depth defenceman Ben Hutton is dealing with an undisclosed medical situation not related to COVID-19 or hockey. He has not practised with the club all week.... Martin Marincin was brought up from the Marlies to join the black aces…. And Toronto Mayor John Tory made a bet with Montreal mayor Valerie Plante on the series.

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