With Montreal at 21 points and Toronto at 20, the two sit second and sixth in the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Yes, all is well in the world when the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are going. Makes a guy pine back to the Original Six days of the 1960s when the two iconic franchises won the Stanley Cup nine times in 10 years. Seriously, because with precious few exceptions, it’s been that long since both teams have been good at the same time.
But look here, the Canadiens woke up Tuesday morning second overall in the Eastern Conference and riding a four-game winning streak, while the Leafs, forecasted by most to finish in the non-playoff contingent of the conference, are firmly in possession of a playoff position and one of five teams in the league – along with the Canadiens - with double digits in victories.
Yes, it’s still very early and both teams are an extended slide away from slipping out of the playoff picture, which is where many envisioned them to be for most of this season. But even though the body of work is relatively small, it’s hard to dispute the notion that there might be something special happening with the league’s two most decorated franchises.
And while there are a myriad of reasons why that is the case, from this corner the most prominent among them is coaching in both cities. With Randy Carlyle in the midst of his first full – well, sort of – season behind the Leafs bench and Michel Therrien taking the reins of the Canadiens for the second time, both men are having a profound impact on their teams.
Therrien has no shortage of critics, but the way he has the Canadiens playing defensively is nothing short of amazing. Take their past two wins, for example. The Canadiens had to do without the services of No. 1 goalie Carey Price, so they hunkered down for backup Peter Budaj and allowed just 38 shots in two games – one more than Ben Scrivens of the Maple Leafs faced in their win over the Florida Panthers Monday night.
In fact, the Canadiens are giving up just 26.7 shots per game this season, which has them tied for fourth-best in the league with the New Jersey Devils. But what makes their shot total interesting is that the figure is far superior to any mark posted under defensive hockey poster boy Jacques Martin or three-time Selke Trophy winner Guy Carbonneau. And while the Canadiens have improved in the faceoff circle of late, they’re still, generally speaking, brutal on the draw.
So a team that starts out with the puck less frequently than almost any other in the league is fourth in the NHL in shots-against per game. That is a testament to two things – the job Therrien has done implementing his defensive system and the outstanding work of Montreal’s relative no-name defense corps.
In Toronto, the approach has been quite different. Both the Leafs power play and penalty kill are middling and they give up a ton of shots. (Funny how a team that finally gets some good goaltending can make a coach look so much better.) But Carlyle has the Maple Leafs playing with an identity they’ve lacked in previous years and an esprit du corps that makes them a very difficult out for opponents.
And there seems to be a sense of accountability under Carlyle that was not there before. For example, in the Leafs 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers Monday night, the healthy scratches for Toronto were Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles and Dave Steckel. That contingent represents three veteran players and almost $9.5 million in cap space. With no real ties to any of the players acquired during the Brian Burke regime, Carlyle has the luxury of giving ice time based on merit instead of reputation or salary. Sending that kind of message is important to a Leaf team that is one of the youngest in the league. The players have to know they’re going to be a part of things based on how well they play, not on their pre-determined status on the depth chart.
Much has been made of the progress of Nazem Kadri, who leads the Leafs in scoring despite getting third-line minutes. Kadri is a perfect example of good things that can happen when a player is not rushed in his development. In an almost un-Leaf-like way, the franchise has brought Kadri along at a reasonable pace and rarely put him in situations where he would not succeed. Clearly those years in the minors under the tutelage of coach Dallas Eakins were very well spent. And Carlyle has done an excellent job of managing Kadri’s ice time. Despite Kadri’s success, Carlyle has not been leaning on him too heavily, instead giving the big minutes to James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
Not only has that not placed undue pressure on the likes of Kadri and Matt Frattin, but it has also given them advantageous matchups. The result is that both are taking advantage and gaining success, as well as confidence. That will serve them well when they move up the depth chart and face more challenging situations.
Of the two teams, the Leafs are probably more primed for a dip than the Canadiens, given the fact the Canadiens are a little more experienced and are playing a much better all-round game. And, hey, we haven’t even mentioned the Vancouver Canucks or the Ottawa Senators, who continue to hang in there despite catastrophic injuries. If Senators coach Paul MacLean and goalie Craig Anderson can somehow find a way to get this team into the playoffs, it will be nothing short of miraculous. (Six rookies in the lineup for their 2-1 shootout win against the New Jersey Devils Monday night.)
Led by the Leafs and Canadiens, the Canadian contingent of the NHL is doing much better than anticipated. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.