TRAIK-EOTOMY: The Habs are a much tougher opponent than some Maple Leafs' fans might think

If it felt like the NHL season was split into two different leagues this year — one in the U.S. and one in Canada — having Boston and Washington play Game 1 of the playoffs on the same day that Edmonton and Vancouver will be playing an otherwise meaningless regular-season game probably won’t change that. It’s an odd move by the NHL schedule-makers. Call me old fashioned, but is it too much to ask that the regular season ends before the playoffs begin? Then again, for most hockey fans the Bruins-Capitals is nothing more than the opening act. The playoffs won’t really begin until a week from now, when the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the North Division semifinal. This is the match-up fans have been waiting for since 1979. It’s the investment that Rogers Sportsnet spent more than $5 billion on. And with apologies to the Oilers and Jets, who begin the playoffs, it’s the most hyped series of the first round. The question is will live up to the hype? I don’t think it will go seven games. But I’m expecting a tough series — tougher than most Toronto fans probably want to admit. For the first time in the past five years — and, no, last year’s play-in against Columbus doesn’t count — the Leafs will be the favourites. They will have all the pressure. Everyone expects them to win the North Division and go all the way and win a Stanley Cup. Anything less will be considered a disappointment. But first they need to get past the Habs. And they need to get over the first-round hump that has tripped them up so many times. In many ways, this could be their greatest challenge. I’m not expecting a sweep. I’d be surprised if it went less than six games. There’s something scary about a Montreal team that has this much youth and this much to prove. Anyone who saw the Habs upset the Penguins in the play-in round last year knows that it wasn’t just Carey Price who stole the series. It was Montreal’s me-against-the world mentality. It was Nick Suzuki playing like he was the second coming of Patrice Bergeron and Jesperi Kotkaniemi finally showing why he was selected ahead of Brady Tkachuk in the 2018 draft. It was Brendan Gallagher being Brendan Gallagher and Shea Weber being Shea Weber. Now, the Habs also have Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Joel Edmundson, as well as Corey Perry and Cole Caufield. They are not as deep or as top-end talented as the Leafs — especially with Price, Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin’s status for Game 1 remaining unclear — but they are not pushovers. That being said, I’m picking the Leafs in six games. And my fingers are crossed that Edmonton gets past Winnipeg so we can see Auston Matthews versus Connor McDavid in the second round. Now, that will be a matchup worth all the hype in the world. TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski tweeted “there are several possible scenarios through which the Leafs and Bruins end up playing for the Stanley Cup.” There are also several possible scenarios that it could be Edmonton and Pittsburgh. Can you imagine McDavid winning his first Stanley Cup against Sidney Crosby? … That being said, I don’t see the Penguins getting past the smothering New York Islanders in the first round. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fourth-place team wins the East Division … As happy as Toronto fans are that the Leafs play the Habs in the first round, fans of the Oilers are probably even happier that Winnipeg — and not Montreal — finished third in the division. McDavid did more damage to the Jets than he did to any other team in Canada this year, scoring seven goals and 22 points in nine games. Leon Draisaitl, meanwhile, had seven goals and 12 points. Against the Canadiens, the pair combined for just three goals and 15 points … Best part about the U.S. teams starting their playoffs a week earlier than in Canada? We don’t have to waste our time watching meaningless regular-season games between Vancouver and Calgary.   FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH Who has the most to prove in the playoffs? If he were on any other team, I’d say it was Taylor Hall. But playing on the Bruins’ second line changes that. Now, my answer is Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer, who has to show he isn’t the weak link on a team that is built to win a Cup … No, Joe Thornton doesn’t have any pressure. You can’t have pressure playing on the fourth line. Anything that the 41-year-old provides from now on is a bonus … My prediction: we’ll be seeing Maple Leafs forward Alex Galchenyuk at some point in the first round. I just don’t know who comes out of the lineup for that to happen … The Battle of Florida isn’t exactly the Battle of Alberta. But I’m excited to see what Selke Trophy favourite Aleksander Barkov can do now that he’s finally in the spotlight … How many games before Tom Wilson earns a suspension in the playoffs? And no, fines don’t count (or really matter) … Now that he’s finally gone, it’s funny how every Columbus player suddenly loves John Tortorella. It was a different story when he was behind the bench … Overheard in Tampa Bay: “Bah Gawd, that’s Kucherov’s music!”   HERE’S ONE FOR YOU According to Sabres GM Kevyn Adams, Jack Eichel has not explicitly asked for a trade. But Adams said he asked every player on the team whether they wanted to remain in Buffalo and some answered they would be “open to everything.” No word on whether that applied to Eichel … If Eichel ends up getting traded, it’s not because he and the team had a difference of opinion on whether he should get surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. It’s because he’s wasted the first six years of his career on a team that is nowhere close to being a playoff team … The trade I’d like to see: Eichel for Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov. Fans in Buffalo, who grew up on Alex Mogilny and Miroslav Satan, would love Kuznetsov’s enthusiasm. And it sounds like the Capitals have had enough of his off-ice distractions … Travis Greene shouldn’t be wondering if he’s going to be returning to coach the Canucks. You can blame COVID-19, an injury to Elias Pettersson and some questionable decisions by the GM for the team missing the playoffs. But no one should be blaming the coach.   IS MIKE BABCOCK THE PERFECT COACH FOR THE RANGERS? Add another one to the pile. A week after the New York Rangers fired their general manger and president, the team showed the door to head coach David Quinn. For those counting, Quinn is the sixth coaching casualty of the shortened season. And while missing the playoffs had something to do with the decision, the bigger justification could be that the team didn’t want to lose out on one of the many top-end coaches who are available. It won’t last long. With vacancies in Arizona, Buffalo, Columbus and Seattle, don’t expect Claude Julien, John Tortorella, Gerard Gallant and many others to remain unemployed. Here are the five teams looking for a coach and who might be a perfect match: A rizona Coyotes Only the three California teams were worse than the Coyotes in the West Division this year. A lack of top-end talent is in issue. But it didn’t help that Arizona finished in the bottom-10 in goals allowed. Perfect match: John Tortorella isn’t everyone’s cup of scalding hot tea. But for a team that is lacking in star power, he can work wonders with some shot-blocking, back-checking and duct tape. Buffalo Sabres A future without Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart is a possibility, so chances are that the Sabres won’t be contending next season. But they’ll need to make sure that Dylan Cozens and Rasmus Dahlin develop into players who can take the team to that next step when the time comes. Perfect match: David Quinn, who earned his stripes coaching Boston University, is a teacher first and foremost. If he can help Adam Fox become a Norris Trophy favourite, then he can help get Dahlin and Cozens on track. Columbus Blue Jackets The team is built around Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on defence, but it’s the offence that needs work. Patrik Laine had the worst season of his career and no one on the Blue Jackets had 20 goals. Perfect match: Bruce Boudreau, who has missed the playoffs just twice in his career, has a reputation as an offence-first coach. Wasington’s Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals under him and even Eric Staal became a 40-goal scorer under him in Minnesota. New York Rangers It’s time for the rebuilding team to take the next steps and contend, so finding a coach who can develop players isn’t as important as finding one who can implement a system that leads to the playoffs. Perfect match: Mike Babcock took a team that finished last overall to the playoffs in three straight years. And having coached in Toronto, as well as at two Olympic games, means the pressure of New York won’t get to him. Seattle Kraken The expansion franchise, which enters the league in 2021-22, is hoping to follow Vegas’ blueprint of being competitive right out of the gates. For that to happen, they need a coach that can bring a roster of rejected misfits together. Perfect match: This is a no-brainer. Gerard Gallant was the coach who won a Jack Adams Award after leading Vegas to the Stanley Cup final in their first year of existence and was fired with a 118-75-20 record.   GOOD ON LAINE FOR NOT BLAMING ANYONE BUT HIMSELF It sure sounds like Patrik Laine could use a hug. When asked what type of coach he would prefer to play for now that John Tortorella is gone from Columbus, the 23-year-old sniper responded in a rather curious way for someone who scored 30 or more goals in each of his first three years in the league. “As an ex-offensive guy, it would be fun to play offence obviously,” he said. “But it doesn’t really matter.” It’s never a good sign when a Rocket Richard Trophy runner-up refers to himself as an “ex-offensive guy.” And yet, GM Jarmo Kekalainen had to love the way that Laine took ownership for his struggles in his end-of-year media availability. On the same day that Jack Eichel made headlines for the comments regarding his tenuous future in Buffalo, Laine didn’t play the blame game. Instead, he took his lumps, looked at himself in the mirror and repeatedly stated how much he loves Columbus and believes in the team — and how motivated he is to get better. It was refreshingly honest. And it hinted at bigger things to come for a player who is well aware that he had the worst season of his young career — a fact that was exacerbated by the spectacular seasons that Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews both enjoyed. Whether you believe it or not, those are the two players that Laine compares himself with. He believes he can be the best scorer in the NHL. He wants to be a superstar. And at his age, there’s no reason to doubt he can get there. “Obviously, I think it’s tough to watch that,” Laine said of McDavid and Matthews. “But you have to accept that you didn’t have a good year and didn’t play the way you can and the way you need to. You want to race with those guys and I just wasn’t able to do that. But I’ll be better next year. We have a lot of time before the puck drops. Got to get some work in and be better.” Prior to this season, only six players had scored more goals in the past five seasons than Laine. But with 10 goals this year, he didn’t even rank in the top three on his team. Part of the blame should be attributed to Tortorella, who seemed to push all the wrong buttons with Laine and many other players this year. But Laine didn’t see it that way. He saw himself as the problem. And now he wants to be the solution. “It’s not the systems’ fault. It’s my fault,” he said. “And I don’t think it matters who’s behind the bench. I still have to go out there and do what I do. I didn’t do that this year, but I’ll do that next year.”