For someone who has grown up in Toronto his whole life as a passionate Montreal Canadiens fan, you can imagine the amount of ridicule and torment I suffered on a constant basis from my friends. I remember many times as a child going to school on jersey days, in a Saku Koivu number 11 home red jersey, as opposed to the standard Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour or Bryan McCabe numbers scattered throughout the halls. It certainly raised a lot of questions from kids in class such as “weren’t you born in Toronto?” and “why on earth would you like the Canadiens?” To which I always reminded them that my dad grew up in the heart of Montreal loving the bleu blanc et rouge; I had no choice.
Watching hockey in the early-2000’s it was another pair of Canadian teams that would frequently do battle, in the Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators. The “Battle of Ontario” as they would call it, would be must-watch television. That Daniel Alfredsson-led team were always a thorn in Toronto’s side, and would sometimes require the full seven games. There is nothing quite like a hockey playoff series where the intensity gets turned up to ten and each play is magnified and crucial. It’s one thing to play a team once every few months on a Saturday night on Hockey Night In Canada, but it is a whole different situation when you play the same team night after night for up to two weeks. The last time the Canadiens and Maple Leafs engaged in a best-of-seven series was in 1979, and Montreal throttled a clearly outmatched Toronto team in four games. Guys like Lanny McDonald and Guy Lafleur were playing and it was thirteen years before I was born. So to say that I have been craving for Montreal and Toronto to dance in a playoff series is a gross and epic understatement.
My argument to my friends was always that the Canadiens were the gold standard when it came to Stanley Cups with 24, while Toronto has 13. However, I was six months old when the Canadiens won their last championship, and thus I have no memories of a parade or seeing my team hoist Lord Stanley’s mug. So I always pondered to myself: what would a Montreal and Toronto best-of-seven series even look like in my lifetime? There were a few chances of it happening over the years, but for the most part over the last decade or so, only one team has struggled whilst the other has prospered.
Which brings us to present day…
This most recent matchup between the two showcased for the first time what I have been diligently waiting for my entire life. I saw what could be a sincere and genuine playoff matchup between the two teams. Two legitimate playoff contending teams that needed a version of pond hockey to decide the game’s winner. It was highly entertaining tilt and had it taken place during the post-season, it would have resulted in 5-on-5-hockey regulation to decide the victor. Since the new playoff format took place in 2014, there has been a significantly higher percentage chance of these two teams clashing. The second and third placed team respectively in there divisions open up the playoffs against each other, but to no avail it has yet to happen- until this year, which finds the Maple Leafs in third place only a single point behind the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division, while the Habs sit just six points behind Toronto.
On one side you have the historic Toronto Maple Leafs. After a long drought of bad management and unfathomably worse hockey, they have since become relevant again since drafting Auston Matthews first overall in 2016. First year general manager Kyle Dubas has done a phenomenal job of putting this team together. While his predecessor Lou Lamoriello did most of the hard work, Dubas has worked magic signing prized free agent John Tavares in the off-season, and recently extending Matthews long-term. The Maple Leafs exploded out of the gate to start the season but have since cooled off; since December 1st a power play unit of Mitch Marner, Morgan Reilly, Nazem Kadri, Matthews and Tavares sits fifth from the bottom of the league. To see a team so rich in talent have a stat like that is bewildering to me. This is a Leafs roster and fan base that had big aspirations of a deep post-season run heading into the spring.
Which brings me to my team, the Montreal Canadiens. After trading away Alex Galchenyuk and former captain Max Pacioretty, the expectations in Montreal were at an all time low. Following last season’s horrendous performance and newly appointed captain Shea Weber out until mid-November, no one could have predicted the success they are having. Claude Julien added coaches Dominquie Ducharme and Luke Richardson to his staff over the summer, to help with the influx of young players that would be dressing up each night. The hirings paid off and Montreal currently sits with a 31-20-7 record, and have recently gone on a stretch in which they recorded sixteen out of a possible twenty four points. Carey Price is standing on his head and the team seems to be clicking on all fronts with the exception of their power play. Somehow despite having bottom of the league special teams, this group continues to play well almost every night.
Now the thing about being a fan of a rivaled team in the city you grow up is no matter what, you remain loyal. Friends might constantly nag and tease you, but you must remain confident that a time will come when you might finally have the upper hand. Heading into this season, I never thought of a possibility of these two Original Six franchises meeting, but with just a quarter of the season left, we are down the home stretch and the likelihood is at its highest peak ever. The Maple Leafs added Jake Muzzin recently while the Canadiens have made depth moves ahead of the February 25th trade deadline. It will be interesting to see if either team makes a splash before the deadline, but regardless as it stands I think these two teams can match up evenly on the main hockey stage if given a chance. I have been dreaming of a Canadiens and Leafs playoff matchup because, win or lose, I can finally answer the question as to who really is the better team.