The 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs has produced another Game 7, and this one features two of hockey’s most iconic franchises. Monday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Montreal Canadiens, after the Habs earned a thrilling overtime win in Game 6 in front of 2,500 fans at the Bell Centre.
Who will be the biggest X factors of this game? And which team will advance to play against the Winnipeg Jets in Round 2?
Who will be the biggest X factor in deciding Game 7?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Auston Matthews. He’s the most talented forward on either team, but he has just one goal and three assists in this series. The 23-year-old is also due for a little puck luck. Matthews is riding a 3.1% shooting percentage (criminally low) despite posting a 70.41% expected goals for percentage, per Natural Stat Trick (which shows he’s playing a lot better than his stats suggest). Matthews is already shaping his legacy with Toronto — including becoming the first Maple Leafs player in 75 years to win the goal-scoring crown — but a big goal in this game? That’s one fans may be talking about for the next 75 years.
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Nick Foligno. The Leafs have fired 133 wrist shots against Carey Price through six games. They have two shots on him off deflections. (For context: Carolina leads the playoffs with 17 shots off deflections in six games; Vegas and Minnesota both had eight in seven games.) Price is gobbling up unscreened shots like Pac-Man. If the Leafs are going to win Game 7, they’re going to have to get greasy. The majority of Foligno’s shots this season have come net-front and below the dots. He’s not 100% healthy and has only one assist in three games this series, but he has hit the board in elimination games before. The Maple Leafs gave up a lot for this guy at the trade deadline, and it was for a game like this.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Mitchell Marner. As Sheldon Keefe suggested Sunday, it’s time for the Leafs’ best players to be their best players. During a period in Toronto’s hockey history commonly referred to as the “Matthews/Marner” era, the Leafs’ two top forwards have a combined lone goal and seven assists in six games against a team they dominated during the regular season. The law of averages suggests one or both are likely to erupt, particularly since they haven’t played poorly. Plus, remember Marner’s facial expression at last summer’s presser following Toronto’s final play-in-playoff loss to Columbus? It was dark. If one of the league’s best skaters could channel some of that sour intensity into his on-ice performance in Game 7, he could be the game changer. And Leafs Nation will no longer care about the boneheaded and costly delay-of-game penalty earned in Saturday’s loss.
Arda Ocal, In the Crease/SportsNation: Mitchell Marner. He had chances in Game 6, but couldn’t quite get his stick on the puck. He had a terrific defensive effort in overtime, but definitely has a spotlight on him going into Game 7. For Marner and Matthews both, this is their time to shine. If the Leafs lose and those two are invisible, questions will be asked by critics and fans alike. If the Leafs win and Marner has a solid game, all will be forgotten.
Ben Arledge, general NHL editor: Carey Price. Price is long beyond his days as a top-five in the NHL, and he hasn’t been dominant since 2016-17. Of the starting goalies still in play, I’d easily rank him in the bottom half. But make no mistake, Price still very much has the ability to steal a game with a big performance, and he enters this one rolling, off a strong 41-save Game 6 showing. He screams “X factor” for me here. Even though his play has dipped in recent years, he still has a .932 save percentage in 16 postseason games over the past two seasons. Will he stand on his head Monday? If he does, it will be the biggest reason Montreal stays alive.
Sachin Chandan, fantasy hockey editor: Phillip Danault. The center has one job: to stop Auston Matthews, and so far he has been the biggest reason why the Matthews-Marner-Zach Hyman line has been held below its season average. To win in Game 7 will require an all-around defensive effort, from Price, captain Shea Weber, and from the defensive forward group. The Maple Leafs can’t win a seven-game series unless the league’s leading scorer can find the net, and Danault’s line has forced Matthews to take worse shot angles, despite Matthews averaging more shots per game in the playoffs (5.33 this series vs 4.27 in the regular season). The Canadiens need Danault to hold the line for just one more game.
What’s your final score pick for the game?
Emily Kaplan: Maple Leafs 5, Canadiens 1. The Leafs have some demons to exorcise. They have lost their last seven games with a chance to clinch a playoff series, the second-longest such losing streak in NHL history. The NHL is a copycat league, and after Tampa Bay made “sandpaper” additions to make its team tougher before winning the Stanley Cup last summer, Toronto did the same this offseason. I think those veterans (Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Nick Foligno) are the difference; if not on the ice, then with their impact and leadership in the locker room.
Greg Wyshynski: Canadiens 3, Maple Leafs 2. It brings me no joy to predict this, as I previously predicted that the Maple Leafs would win their first Stanley Cup since 1967, for a truly bizarre end to a truly bizarre season. But Toronto fans enter every postseason wondering what manner of heartbreak they’ll experience this time. The story so far: entering the playoffs as a top divisional seed and a Stanley Cup favorite; losing star center John Tavares in Game 1 to a freak injury; and blowing a 3-1 series lead to their rivals from Montreal (who were 18 points behind them in the standings) in their first playoff meeting in 42 years. As Nick Foligno said after Game 6, a victory in a series like this “catapults you.” If the Maple Leafs survive this underdog challenge, this very well could be their year. But after two straight games in which a turnover led to a Montreal overtime goal, and with Carey Price on his game, I think the Leafs are going to be gripping their sticks too tightly and will be in their own heads from the opening faceoff. They can talk all they want about the franchise’s playoff history not weighing on this team, yet they clearly skate with that burden on their shoulders. This is how it happens this time for Toronto.
Victoria Matiash: Maple Leafs 5, Canadiens 2. The Canadiens shouldn’t have much left in the tank after laying it out for the first time in front of a couple thousand hometown fans and two inspired, if not rather fortunate, overtime wins against a superior team. This is it. This is the year. For the first time since “Shrek 2” dominated the box office and Snoop Dogg “Drop(ped) It Like It’s Hot” up the charts, the Maple Leafs are advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Unless Carey Price completely stands on his head, which can’t be ruled out.)
Arda Ocal: Maple Leafs 3, Canadiens 2 in OT. They’ll exorcise multiple demons here: the “winning a playoff series” demon, the “losing two straight in overtime to get to this point” demon, the “Marner and Matthews have been quiet this series” demon — and maybe some others we don’t know about. For all of the heartache Leafs fans have endured, this will be a truly cathartic experience.
Ben Arledge: Maple Leafs 4, Canadiens 2. I’m thinking this is a back-and-forth battle through two periods, but Toronto scores late in the third period to break a tie and then adds an empty-netter to seal it. And some gut calls: Marner finds the net for the first time in the series, Cole Caufield gets his first career playoff tally, and Jack Campbell makes a huge save in the final two minutes of the game. The Leafs get a monkey off their back by advancing to meet the Jets in Round 2.
Sachin Chandan: Canadiens 2, Maple Leafs 1. Like Greg, I picked the Leafs to finally raise the Cup when we did our picks before the playoffs began, but I am having a hard time seeing it now. Toronto has outscored and outshot Montreal this series, but here we are in Game 7 after the Canadiens’ young forwards have been able to take advantage of Leafs miscues. I predict Montreal getting out to a two-goal lead and then holding off a furious Leafs rush in the third to win 2-1. Carey Price adds to his Montreal legend, and the Canadiens advance to face the Jets for the North Division crown.