Dave Poulin: The Maple Leafs and Canadiens are on a collision course after ‘Go Time’ moments

Life gets interesting when two different things start to move in the same direction. It could be that much more interesting if they arrive at the same place and determine each other’s fate.

That place would be the second round of the North Division playoffs, with the winner advancing to the Stanley Cup conference final. These two different “things,” the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, are and always will be different in so many ways. Their histories will dictate that. Their fans will remind you of that. And their current iterations enforce their differences.

The Leafs are built around two young and highly talented 23-year-old forwards, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. They are a nightly highlight show, creating offensive magic and genius. The current model has been in place for five years now, and has shown marked progress. Pieces have been added and subtracted around the two young stars, with skill and speed being the consistent factor.

Montreal couldn’t be more different in its construction, with veterans 33-year-old goaltender Carey Price and 35-year-old defenceman Shea Weber in place as their cornerstones. Despite the age and experience of its two principles, the current build in Montreal has actually been slower and often more cumbersome.

Over the most recent off-season, philosophies seemed to change in both management offices, and this is where things get interesting. The play-in and playoffs of a pandemic-shortened season may have triggered that change.

The Canadiens came out of that time with a huge smile. A surprising addition to an expanded post-season format, they excelled. They upset the Pittsburgh Penguins before losing a hard-fought seven-game series to Philadelphia, but all things were positive. Their young talent shone — centres Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi — and the veteran defence triad of Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot helped forge a hardened identity in front of Price. And Price was, well, he was Carey Price.

In Toronto it was just the opposite, and they exited the season with a large collective frown. A crushing loss in the play-in series to Columbus meant that the Leafs technically wouldn’t even be joining the playoffs in 2020. This followed three consecutive first-round playoff series losses that dampened strong regular-season showings. It was seemingly more of the same. There was so much high-end offensive talent in place, but post-season success was increasingly elusive.

The smile in Montreal and the frown in Toronto seemed to lead both management groups in the same direction, and both decided it was “Go Time.”

In the windows of pro sports, this is a most oft-asked question internally, and certainly a most argued question externally. When are we really ready to win? How close are we? What do we need to put us over the top? Is it shopping time?

We all look at the championship teams and understand what made them successful. What we have to understand is how long it actually takes to get there. Pro sports is a very impatient place. False windows often appear, and huge disappointments are often the most critical building blocks.

What “Go Time” meant in Montreal and Toronto was another good study.

In Montreal they strengthened what they were already good at, and added much needed scoring. They provided Price with a strong backup in veteran Jake Allen, and added even more size and net-front presence in Joel Edmundson. Up front, scoring came in the form of power forward Josh Anderson, elusive Tyler Toffoli, and veterans Corey Perry and Michael Frolik. It isn’t a coincidence that the newcomers have won a combined five Stanley Cups. Early results have shown a balanced and effective veteran team, despite a most recent ebb in their play.

Toronto’s off-season featured strengthening a much maligned defence with T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen, and a number of depth forwards to bolster their third and fourth lines. But the two featured pieces were 41-year-old Joe Thornton and 32-year-old battle-hardened Wayne Simmonds. The last two names are every bit as much about attitude as they are about play. Thornton was injured early, but has still had a significant impact on the group. Simmonds was off to an excellent start with five goals and a gnarly attitude before also being derailed by injury. Collectively, the additions have all performed well and the team is off to an excellent early season.

Coaches will always talk process with you, about the importance of details throughout the regular season. The building blocks have to be in place. They preach daily about doing the right thing. But coaches also know that true success is measured in the playoffs, where we often see a different style of hockey prevail.

Regular-season success in Toronto has not led to the post-season success to date. The changes they made indicate they’re more equipped with grit and sandpaper and abrasiveness to accompany the brilliance of the core four talent in their forward group.



Montreal appears to be built with the playoffs in mind. They would embrace a more physical seven-game series with a balanced scoring attack across all four lines and a physically imposing defensive group.

While two very different routes have been taken in recent years by these iconic organizations, their philosophies seem to be narrowing to a similar place. Fans of both hope they are headed on a collision course that would be a welcome treat. Fans love “Go Time.”

Dave Poulin is a former NHL player, executive and TSN hockey analyst based in Toronto. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @djpoulin20

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