MONTREAL — The top two teams in the North Division duke it out as the Toronto Maple Leafs (10-2-1) visit the Montreal Canadiens (8-2-2) at Bell Centre on Wednesday.
Although the Canadiens had an excellent showing by upsetting the fifth-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round of the 2020 NHL Playoffs, their start this season has caught some by surprise.
So how did they do it?
The simple answer is they have dominated their opponents at even strength.
Per Sportlogiq, the Canadiens lead the NHL at even-strength shot attempts per game (67.2), even-strength face-offs won, resulting in a shot on net (34.1 percent) and even-strength shots on net from the slot per game (15.4).
The Canadiens also dominate on rebounds. They have 2.76 shot attempts per game on second chances at the net at even strength.
Through 13 regular-season games, the Leafs have not faced a challenge from a team this dominant at even strength. Both teams have played each other once this season. The Leafs defeated the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime in the season opener for both clubs.
It’s hard to take much away from that game, as it was their first game in several months for both clubs. With the season now into its second month, we see a pair of teams forging an attacking identity.
“Montreal’s at the top of the league in a lot of the adavanced stats so it’s definitely going to be a huge adjustment,’ Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl said. “I don’t think anything changes in our process, we’re just going to have to keep tight gaps, try to kill plays early and play as a five-man unit in the D-zone.”
The Canadiens rank in the top-five in many other even-strength categories, including expected goals for (3.04) and expected goals against (1.98). They are third in the league in both categories, where Toronto is eighth in expected goals for (2.81) and 14th in expected goals against.
“It’s a team that doesn’t give you any shifts off, so you have to be ready to go right from the start and all the way through,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.
Toronto has put a focus on trying to become a better team defensively this season. While they may lack the goals at even strength, they do an excellent job of keeping the puck in the opposing zone when they possess it.
They lead the league in even-strength offensive zone face-off wins (53.9 percent) and even-strength offensive zone dump-in recovered (40.1 percent).
It just hasn’t resulted in goals where Montreal is the better shooting team.
John Tavares has one goal at even strength this season.
“I would like to have more, no doubt, but I don’t try to beat myself up about it,” Tavares said. “I think there’s a lot of good aspects of my game. Not just offensively.”
Toronto’s strength has come on the power play this season.
On Wednesday, the Leafs played their first game without Wayne Simmonds, who will be out of the lineup for six weeks with a broken wrist.
A net-front present on the power play, the Leafs shifted the role Simmonds played against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday, but went 0-for-2 and had their string of games with at least one power-play goal halted at seven games.
The Leafs experimented with different power-play units at practice. Nic Petan was added to the first unit in the bumper position with Zach Hyman remaining as the man in front of the net. The second unit saw Ilya Mikhevey used to play in front of the net.
At 6’3″ and 195lbs, Mikheyev is a bigger body than Simmonds and his added presence could help Toronto continue their success with the man advantage.
Mikhevey will serve the regular second-line right-winger after the Leafs rotated the spot in that last game.
Pierre Engvall draws into the lineup to take Mikhevey’s spot on the third line.
Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott will return to the lineup after missing the last two games with a leg injury. He’ll skate alongside Travis Bogosian.