Photo Credit: Eric Bolte/USA TODAY SPORTS
The first meeting of 2016-17 between the Leafs and Canadiens felt important, felt a little more special, after two home games against “the Florida teams.” Leafs fans know what it means to step into Centre Bell on a Saturday evening around 642pm — it just has that “feel,” doesn’t it?
As someone who never got to an NHL game at the Montreal Forum, I’m beyond envious hearing of others’ experiences there, same as the Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, or the Olympia in Detroit (didn’t get to those, either). But there’s still a bit of an energy jolt the Leafs/Canadiens games need to “next level” things among all generations, isn’t there?
It’s a spark, a candle, a burning emphasis on the importance of the outcome — it’s been missing for some time, hasn’t it? So, despite a 2-1 regulation loss last night which displayed not very many surprises about both teams (the Leafs are awfully skilled and raw at the forward position, the blueline is easily rattled into giving away chances, and Carey Price is the steadiest, calmest, most skilled goaltender on Planet Earth), wouldn’t you agree the game, despite a couple scrums and some jawing, felt more tame than usual?
It was even suggested, hopefully, by Montreal captain Max Pacioretty that the younger Maple Leafs — seven of the eighteen skaters were playing their first-ever game as a Leaf versus the Habs — had best learn to hate the Canadiens for what they are currently, and even their proud(er) history just as the “Dion Phaneuf generation” had quickly been able to do.
But I wonder if there are several factors that have made for a somewhat, shall we say, more soggy rivalry between the two teams. A sports year like this with the Cleveland Cavaliers winning an NBA title, and both the Tribe from Cleveland and Chicago’s Cubs battling in the World Series makes you realize how much time flies as a sports fan, gathering it all in, flipping channels, going to games, checking fantasy statistics, etc.
Look, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs DO have a rivalry — I can’t tell you that’s not the case, but it’s survived teetering on a knife edge, given the lack of relevance in the standings of the vast majority of their 6-8 games against each other the last decade and a half or so, since the Maple Leafs crossed back over to the Eastern Conference from the West.
While it’s very hard to convince people that the Habs and Leafs used to meet only twice a season for nearly the Leafs’ entire Campbell Conference/Western Conference existence (1981-1998), they did, and the only chance the rivalry had to light a fire, well, would have been 1993, and we all know what an utter powderkeg that would have been.
The Canadiens won their Eastern Conference Final in five games over the New York Islanders on May 24, 1993, and at that point, the Leafs/Kings West Final had only completed four games and was deadlocked at 2-all. Now, we Ontario residents (I was finishing my 3rd year of a Poli Sci degree at UWO that spring and waiting tables at Joe Kool’s – only the best college part-time job a lad could have, despite the smell of cigarette smoke on your clothes in that very different era) were utterly in the moment, and captivated by a Leafs re-birth then.
But it’s worth pointing out that the Leafs/Kings series had so much drama, so many twists and turns, so much to enthrall us, either we were too busy or too superstitious to actually consider the implications nationally of a potential Canadiens/Leafs Stanley Cup Final — because if you were of my vintage, if you will, the Canadiens were just one of those unbeatable, infallible, bulletproof sports organizations.
I’ve made this point on my radio shows countless times, and unlike other of my opinions, it seems to be well-received — the teams that are dominant in your youth remain embedded in your mind as great, no matter how their fortunes will dip and dive over your adult years. So when I see the Canadiens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Lakers, Cincinnati Reds (getting more used to that, actually), or New York Yankees have a lousy season or draft in their league’s Top 5, I’m almost still shocked by it.
That same development will happen with today’s young sports fans, I believe. In a post-Brady/Belichick New England Patriots world, younger people (hell, maybe all of us) will be stunned to see them be 5-11 a couple of seasons in a row. In the NHL, though that day may be coming, what would it be like seeing the Red Wings finish 28th of 30, win the Draft Lottery, and have the first-overall pick? Worth noting, DRW’s most-recent Top TEN (!!!) pick was grabbing Martin Lapointe in 1991. The Leafs have had eight Top 10 picks since then (and of course, have famously traded two away in the Kessel acquisition).
So, it’s still surprising when the Canadiens falter, but a 1993 Habs/Leafs Final is still a very easy discussion to get started (who wins, how handily) and both fan bases have very set opinions. The Leafs argument is that the Canadiens’ OT magic would have run out at some point in time (8 of their 12 wins getting to the Final were in overtime, and they’d win 3 of 4 against the Kings needing extra time to do so). The Canadiens can point to having the superior goaltender (you can love how Felix Potvin was playing in the spring of 1993, but it’s true, and the Leafs path getting there was longer, 21 games played versus 15, would play a major factor in Montreal winning).
But the modern-day problem is this; there’s a younger generation that needs Montreal v Toronto to matter more than just for random points on a Saturday night in Montreal or Toronto. In October, in January, even in March.
We can agree, quite obviously that rivalries are created in the postseason, and you need both organizations to maintain a certain standard of excellence, mutual dislike, and the fans must be fully engaged. You had it for a few playoff seasons between Chicago and Vancouver. Boston and Montreal have been able to create it from their numerous playoff meetings (I mean, they’ve had 18 playoff series since 1976). Need anyone ask why a Canadiens fan considers Boston more of a rival than they would Toronto?
The Leafs haven’t played Montreal in a playoff series since 1979, and Montreal walloped Toronto in a 4-game quarter-final sweep, much as they did the spring before in the league semi-finals after Toronto’s momentous Game 7/Lanny McDonald OT goal quarter-final win over the Islanders.
That’s not only been difficult to handle for people like me who want Montreal/Toronto games to mean so much more, but it’s also been difficult to fathom mathematics-wise.
The Leafs have been back in the Eastern Conference since 1998-99, playing Montreal 6-8 times a season based on scheduling frequency, and still no playoff meetings. Toronto has played Ottawa four times. Philadelphia three times. The Devils twice. Now, here’s a tip — making the playoffs more frequently as your historic rival does strangely increase the odds you’ll meet in a series. Missing 10 of 11 playoff tournaments helps no one. After coming back to the East, Toronto played ten playoff series in their first four years. They’ve since played four series in thirteen calendar years (including a Boston meeting for the first time since 1974 — Bobby Orr was 26 years old and had a 122 point season that year, so it had been quite a while).
Strangely, the Canadiens could have been slightly more helpful in this matter also. They missed the playoffs four of the first five years Toronto was in the East. That slide down the table in the post-Patrick Roy trade years was a painful one. The Canadiens missed drawing Toronto in the short-season 2013 playoffs by just a couple points — Montreal was a #2 seed, Toronto was #5, but only a point ahead of the #6 Rangers and #7 Senators.
Toronto is a team on the climb — the standings don’t currently show it, but they’ll be a far better and more accomplished group by January or February than they will be over the next six weeks. Ask the Buffalo Sabres right now how many growing pains there are when you choose to take this direction. Crosby and Malkin didn’t win a playoff round until their third NHL season. John Tavares on the Island took seven years to win a playoff series, and he and his team missed the postseason four of his first five years. Taylor Hall is about to turn 25 and hasn’t sniffed an NHL playoff game. His old team may make it (though they may not) and his current team hasn’t made the postseason in the last four years and doesn’t look much like doing so this season in the early days. So, yeah, there’s no guarantees.
But given you need to be a lot closer to 50 years of age than anywhere below that to remember actually meaningful Canadiens/Maple Leafs games, it’s not too much to ask to ask the collective hockey gods that the first series this new Maple Leafs core plays in the postseason (be it next year, or the year after) is against Montreal. Fair is fair — and the rivalry needs that collective defibrillator to the chest, doesn’t it?