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Analyzing how Maple Leafs, Canadiens have risen to top of North Division

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens face-off Wednesday night on Sportsnet to determine who is the best team in the Scotia North Division. Well, not really, but it kind of feels that way.

The Maple Leafs (10-2-1) are off to their fourth-best start in franchise history and best since 1993-94. The Canadiens (8-2-2) are three points back of Toronto with a game in hand and have the best goal differential (+17) of any team in the division. These teams have only met once this season, an opening night 5-4 overtime win by the Maple Leafs. Nearly a month later, it seems like these historic rivals might be jockeying for top spot in the division the rest of the way.

Both teams know how to fill the net. Montreal is the highest-scoring team in the NHL averaging four goals per game; Toronto sits fourth averaging 3.69. However, they have achieved a high level of offensive success in very different ways.

Toronto is an elite puck possession team. Montreal is one of the deadliest quick-strike teams in the NHL. Two contrasting styles that have produced similar levels of success this season.

Here’s what to expect when Toronto and Montreal hit the ice at the Bell Centre.

Maple Leafs – Puck Possession

Expect the Maple Leafs to spend more time in the Canadiens’ end than vice-versa. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will score more goals than Montreal, but a heavy offensive zone cycle that prioritizes puck possession and shot quality is a hallmark of the Maple Leafs’ game.

At even-strength, Toronto averages 6:37 of offensive zone puck possession time per 60 minutes played. Only the Colorado Avalanche average more.

However, even with all of that puck possession in the offensive zone, the Maple Leafs rank 24th in shot attempts (55.7) per-60. If the right opportunity to attack the net isn’t there, the Maple Leafs have the skill to move the puck until they find a shooting or passing lane they like.

Often, Toronto will rotate a forward high in the offensive zone in an attempt to pull defenders out of position. Their first goal against Vancouver on Monday is a perfect example.

In their only game against the Canadiens this season, the Maple Leafs spent more time in Montreal’s end (26:13 to 23:27) and won the offensive zone puck possession battle as well (7:50 to 4:49). The ice will likely be tilted tonight, but that will only give the Maple Leafs an advantage if they can get inside the face-off dots and create meaningful offensive chances against the Canadiens.

On the power play, the Leafs’ ability to whip the puck around the attacking end proves even deadlier as Toronto has the third-best power play conversion rate in the NHL at 36.6 per cent.

Trailing 3-1 in the second period on opening night against the Canadiens, Toronto scored twice on the man-advantage in a span of 90 seconds in what proved to be a pivotal sequence in the game. The Leafs’ power play has been lights out since. From winning face-offs to getting pucks into high-quality scoring areas, shooting from those spots and getting traffic in front, the Maple Leafs have been elite in all areas critical to power play success.

What the Maple Leafs will have to look out for, both at even strength and on the power play, is how aggressive the Canadiens are away from the puck and how quickly they can create offence by forcing turnovers.

Montreal – Quick Strike

No team has been deadlier off the rush this season than the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal ranks third in rush chances at even-strength with 82 and first in rush goals with 15. The Canadiens apply pressure in all three zones and have the speed and finishing ability to make teams pay if they turn the puck over.

Even dumping a puck out of the defensive zone can prove costly if opposing teams aren’t on their toes, as the Canadiens do a great job of regrouping in the neutral zone and attacking up ice with purpose.

Brendan Gallagher is tied for the NHL lead in goals off the rush with four and new addition, Josh Anderson, ranks third with three. His first rush goal of the season came against the Maple Leafs on opening night.

Montreal has a tougher time creating offence in-zone as nearly half the even strength goals they have scored this season have come off the rush. Unlike Toronto, Montreal prefers a volume approach to shooting once they set up in the offensive zone.

The Canadiens rank first in shot attempts and shots on goal per 60 minutes at even strength despite ranking 27th in offensive zone possession per 60 at 4:58. If they have the puck, there’s a good chance the Canadiens will look to throw it on goal and create havoc around the net.

On the power play, the Canadiens will look to attack as soon as they enter the offensive zone if given the chance, and did just that on more than one occasion in their lone game against the Maple Leafs this season.

If you’re making a line change on the penalty kill, make it quick because the Canadiens can move the puck from the defensive zone to the back of your net in the blink of an eye.

Montreal is even dangerous on the penalty kill, where they lead all teams with 14 shorthanded rush chances and four rush goals. The Canadiens have speed on all four forward lines and Jeff Petry loves to jump into the play, leading all defencemen with six rush chances and two rush goals.

So, when you’re watching the game tonight keep an eye on whether Toronto can use its puck possession skills to get inside the dots and generate shots from the quality scoring areas of the ice. Otherwise, all that zone time will likely amount to empty calories.

For the Canadiens, keep an eye on how they pressure the puck when they don’t have it and look to attack with numbers up ice in transition. No team has done it better this season.

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