The first round in the North Division of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs… Didn’t go as most people expected, to say the least. The high-flying offenses of Auston Matthews’ Maple Leafs and Connor McDavid’s Oilers were stunningly upset in the first round, albeit in different fashions. The Oilers were stunningly swept by the Jets, losing the last three games of the series in overtime and blowing a 4-1 lead in Game 3. Toronto coughed up a 3-1 series lead to a pesky Montréal club that won Games 5 and 6 in OT after blowing multi-goal 3rd period leads, then completely shut the Leafs down in Game 7.
A lot will be made of those teams’ shortcomings, but their conquerors deserve a ton of credit too. And one of them will be making their second trip to the third round in the last seven years. It’s set to feature two of the best goaltenders in the world dueling it out to become kings of Canada. Let’s take a look at what sets these North Division underdogs apart and who will be the top dog in this second-round showdown.
#3 Winnipeg Jets (30-23-3) vs. #4 Montréal Canadiens (24-21-11)
Recent Meetings: Remember, the Jets and Canadiens are usually in different conferences. So it’s no surprise this is the first playoff series between the two clubs.
The Last Time Here: Winnipeg has only reached the second round once in their franchise history. It was an epic seven-game series that ended with the Jets taking down the President’s Trophy-winning Predators in 2018. Montréal hasn’t reached the second round since 2015; they lost in six games to the same Lightning club they swept in the first round the year prior.
Season Series: Winnipeg took six of nine head-to-head games, but just a plus-three goal differential shows that things were pretty close. As you’d expect (more on that below), the underlying numbers were more complimentary towards the Habs, however. Kyle Connor and Tyler Toffoli both scored six times in the season series for their respective clubs.
The Road So Far: I touched on it in the intro, but I’ll spell it out again here. Both of these teams were underdogs in their first-round sets. The Jets pulled off probably the closest sweep in NHL history over Edmonton; if you factor out empty netters, every single game was decided by one goal, three of which went to overtime. But a sweep is still a sweep. A 1-0 series lead quickly became a 3-1 deficit to a Canadiens team many expect to lay over and die. Instead, the Habs took Games 5 and 6 in OT, then convincingly shut down Toronto’s potent offense in Game 7.
Winnipeg Wins Because: Star power is what matters most in the playoffs, and the Jets have the Habs beat in that department. With Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois both back in the Jets’ lineup in Game 3, Winnipeg is once again a scary offensive threat. The Jets put just three pucks past Mike Smith in the first two games of Round 1; with Ehlers and Dubois in the lineup for the next two games, the Jets scored nine times. Dubois was my player to watch in my Jets Round 1 preview, but Ehlers is the club’s best skater. He was their only forward to have their head above in Corsi and xG during the regular season (same applies to Corsi for the playoffs), also finishing second on the club in goals per game. He was also the only regular forward to clear the 50% bar for Corsi during the playoffs.
Of course, Winnipeg has even more high-end forward talent to offer. Their top-line of Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler is a fearsome one on paper. The good news is they combined for 14 points in Round 1, finishing as the club’s top-three scorers. The bad news is an issue I alluded to in the previous paragraph; what offense the Jets do produce, they give that back and then some in the defensive zone. Winnipeg has been a flat-out awful 5-on-5 team since the 2019-20 season, and their top line is no exception. A 47.62% Corsi and 42.95% xG aren’t numbers you’d expect from a Round 2 team’s top line, to put it kindly.
Now don’t get me wrong, the playoffs are all about results over process; for example, there isn’t a single Toronto fan taking solace in the fact they outshot and out-chanced the Canadiens over the course of their series. So why even bother with the numbers? Because they show that the way the Jets are playing, or being outplayed, to put it better, is very unlikely to produce a winner, as the numbers show. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that being heavily outshot and out-chanced at 5-on-5, where the majority of the game is played (especially in the playoffs), is a bad thing and generally leads to losing. That doesn’t mean the Jets can’t defy the odds for another round, or two, or even three; it’s just very unlikely unless they find a sudden second wind.
So how have the Jets defied the odds so far? Simple: timely scoring and Connor Hellebuyck. Winnipeg is fourth in team shooting percentage and first in save percentage so far in the playoffs. They ranked 10th and 6th in those categories in the regular season. No goaltender faced more shots this season than Hellebuyck, who finished 9th with 10.99 goals saved above average. Last season, he finished first and second in those categories, stopping an absurd 22.4 goals saved above average. He was tremendous in Round 1, sporting a Herculean .950 save percentage and 4.6 goals saved above average, or an average of 1.15 goals saved above average per game.
A goaltender like Hellebuyck can mask many weaknesses, even one as glaring as Winnipeg’s blue-line, which you easily mistake for randomly generated names from 2026 of an EA Sports franchise mode (which of these names is a real Jets defender: Tucker Poolman or Ivan Voloshenko). If the Jets win this series, Hellebucyk is a lock to be the focal point of their victory.
If the Jets have designs on winning this series, they’ll need to excel in the special teams’ battle. Winnipeg is fourth in power-play (30%) and sixth in penalty kill (81.8%) so far in these playoffs, a huge reason for knocking off Edmonton. Their PP operated at an excellent 26.9% clip against Montréal in their nine head-to-head meetings. However, the Habs’ PP actually clocked in a tick better at 27.8%, meaning Winnipeg’s PK struggled a bit against the Canadiens this year. The power-play allows Winnipeg’s high-end scorers to operate without worrying about defense. And it’s a good thing for the Jets that your goalie has to be your best penalty killer, not Derrick Forbort or Tucker Poolman (there’s your answer, BTW). Winning this battle is a must if the Jets hope to move on.
Montréal Wins Because: As they proved against Toronto, offense wins games, but defense wins championships. One thing the Habs have always gotten credit for this year (and deservedly so), even when they were down 3-1, is that their team is built for the playoffs. Marc Bergevin has built a deep, physical team that is not fun to go up against. When you combine that team with playoff Carey Price, you can see how difficult it is to beat them.
What the Canadiens lack in truly elite talent, they make up for in-depth and defense. The Canadiens can roll four lines with the best of them, and it all starts with their embarrassment of riches down the middle. Phillip Danault centers arguably the league’s most underrated line with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. In the regular season, the trio posted a gaudy 63.15% Corsi, 69.24% xG, and outscored opponents 18-3 and 5-on-5. They don’t have the high-end talent of Boston’s Perfection Line or Colorado’s dominant first line. But this is one of the best possession lines in hockey, no doubt about it. Danault is also tremendous defensively; he leads Habs forwards with 3:10 of short-handed time defensively per game and finished 6th in Selke Trophy voting last year.
Right behind him are a pair of blossoming youngsters in Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Kotkaniemi was a surprise healthy scratch at the start of the series, as was electric rookie sniper Cole Caufield. It’s not a surprise the best version of the Canadiens, the one we saw in their last three games against Toronto, includes these two weapons, and they were at the epicenter of Montréal’s OT winners in Games 5 and 6. Suzuki has been dynamite all season and (despite poor underlying numbers in Round 1) is gaining a reputation as a big-game player; he has five goals in his last nine playoff games, dating back to Round 1, Game 5 in 2020 against Philadelphia. His dominance isn’t a result of years of hard work and incredible skill, but purely from this post. Never Tweet, kids.
Wingers like Toffoli (team-leading five points in Round 1), Cole Caufield (more on him later), Joel Armia, and feisty veteran Corey Perry (who scored the series winner and two of Montréal’s three PPGs in Round 1) are also important cogs in the machine. Montréal’s biggest advantage in this series is on the backend. The Jets don’t have a defenseman nearly as good as Shea Weber or Jeff Petry, let alone both of them. Weber is aging like fine wine, and Petry is the perfect puck-moving defenseman on the second pair.
Petry’s been complemented well by Joel Edmundson, though it was a tough start to the playoffs for Weber’s usual partner Ben Chiarot (42.47% Corsi, 35.47% xG). Expect whichever two of Brett Kulak, Erik Gustafsson, and Alex Romanov (give the kid a shot, Ducharme) are on the third pair to be heavily sheltered as the Kulak-Gustafsson duo was in Games 6 and 7, playing less than ten minutes.
Of course, a Canadiens playoff series preview wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Carey Price. Like in Montréal’s Qualifier Round upset of Pittsburgh ten months ago, the Habs played well enough that Price didn’t necessarily steal the series. But he was exceptional, no doubt about it. His regular-season numbers the last two years have been sketchy. Yet, Price has been phenomenal in his last four playoff series, dating back to Round 1 in 2017. Price clocks in at 10.3 goals above expected in 23 games over that span, averaging about 0.5 per game. He’ll be going up against quite the foe in Connor Hellebuyck between the opposition’s pipes. But playoff Price is certainly up to the task.
Players to Watch:
WPG: C Andrew Copp – It doesn’t show in their underlying numbers, but Winnipeg does have some intriguing depth pieces up-front. Paul Stastny is still a capable middle-six center who scored the OT winner in Game 2. There’s also the recently extended Adam Lowry, a hard-hitting defensively responsible center. Paul Maurice hasn’t found the right combination there yet (and maybe they don’t exist with the defense behind them), but there are some nice pieces beyond the headline names.
None of them had as good of a regular season as Andrew Copp, though. Coming into this season, Copp’s best season was 2019-20, where he scored at a 34-point pace. This season, he produced at a gaudy 58-point clip, besting his career-high 28 points with 39 despite playing in the fewest games of his career. He’s a versatile player who can play up and down the lineup at center and the wing. Copp scored a career-high 15 goals in the regular season (22-goal pace in a full season). However, he only had two assists in Round 1. You need some depth scoring to go deep in the playoffs; Copp is the most likely player to meet that need for the Jets.
MTL: RW Cole Caufield – Young, unproven players far worse than Cole Caufield have made names for themselves in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before. Yes, Caufield is a goal-scorer who didn’t light the lamp once in five games against Toronto. Still, he certainly looked like he belonged. The 5’7”, 162 lb winger certainly looked up to the task physically against the Maple Leafs. And with his team facing elimination in overtime of Game 5, it was Caufield who picked off ex-Canadien Alex Galchenyuk’s ill-advised point-to-point pass, then unselfishly set up Suzuki for the winner on the ensuing 2-on-0. Caufield’s best days as an NHLer are probably still a little bit away. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact in this series.
The Pick: This is a tough series to predict, perhaps because nobody expected it to happen. Heck, the Jets weren’t even a popular pick to make the playoffs five months ago. There are two main variables in this series that will determine the winner. It comes down to how well Montréal can shut down Winnipeg’s top-six and which all-world goaltender will out-duel the other. The long rest Winnipeg’s sweep afforded them should help early in this series. But I can’t bet on a team as bad at 5v5 as them against Montréal, a legitimately strong possession team. Betting against red-hot Carey Price doesn’t sound fun, either. Montréal in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I also borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. Overtime played a huge role in both of these team’s first-round meetings, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times above. There were a ton of OT games in Round 1; 15 out of 48 (31.25%) to be specific. That number is due to even out, so let’s say every game in this series will end in sixty minutes. No playoff overtime to see here, folks.