“We understand what fate could bring, and this is a potential first-round matchup,” Toronto Maple Leafs leading goal scorer Nazem Kadri said of his team’s battle with the Montreal Canadiens. “I think they understand the style we play, (and) physical play definitely plays a huge role.”
As the NHL’s regular season enters its stretch run, a Leafs-Canadiens series is very possible and could well happen in Round 1. The Leafs are looking to secure the fifth seed in the East, and with just a one-point lead on Boston, Montreal could easily drop to the fourth seed this week.
Although neither team would have difficulty selling tickets no matter who they play in May, Leafs-Habs would bring a long-awaited dream match-up for fans and players, to say nothing of TV execs.
The Original Six clubs opened the regular season against each other Jan. 19 and will close it out together, when they face off at Air Canada Centre on April 27.
How great would it be if that match were a prelude to a playoff series linked by decades of history and a single continuous stretch of pavement?
As Maple Leafs defenceman Ryan O'Byrne said of the Leafs-Habs resuscitated rivalry, "This year it's special."
Here's why we need to see a springtime showdown between the two NHL's teams with the most championships.
1. History is begging for it
While casual fans might assume that Leafs-Habs has always been one of hockey's greatest rivalries, that historical hatred has only recently been rekindled through a new batch of meaningful games. Bruins-Habs has featured four one-goal nail-biters this season, and Senators-Leafs has spurned enough intra-Ontario venom that even the teams' marketing folks have started getting in on the action.
The Canadiens have already snatched their 80th playoff berth since the NHL's first season in 1917-18, and Toronto appears destined to snap its league-worst seven-season postseason drought.
The teams have met 15 times in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it's been 34 years, the Habs sweeping the last two meetings, in 1978 and 1979. The all-time playoff series battle is airtight, 8-7 in favour of Montreal.
Further, the winner of each Leafs-Habs series has gone on to kiss the Cup - an incredible stat on the surface, tempered by the fact that six of their meetings were in the final anyway and eight were in the semis.
Interestingly, only once has Leafs-Habs seen a Game 7, in 1964, when Toronto took the series with a 3-1 victory.
2. Injection of youth
Montreal-Toronto playoff games essentially skipped a generation of fans and players. Incredibly, not one member of the '13 Leafs was even alive for the last Habs-Leafs series. Montreal's Jeff Halpern, Tomas Kaberle and Andrei Markov, conceived prior to that '79 series, could conceivably have caught a bit of the action on the tube television as toddlers.
Some of the potential series' most compelling talents are '90s babies: Alex Galchenyuk (age 19), Brendan Gallagher (20), Nazem Kadri (22), Jake Gardiner (22). P.K. Subban (23) and James van Riemsdyk (23) are having their best regular seasons yet. And both starting netminders, Carey Price and James Reimer, are only 25.
With youth comes speed and abandon, and this could well be the first in a lengthy history of playoff showdowns with these groups.
"You can see our confidence going up and up here. We're a young team, but we are confident. We go into every game knowing we have a chance to win," Leafs defenceman Ryan O'Byrne said following Saturday's 5-1 victory. "We're playing a Montreal team that has a lot of confidence themselves, that has had a lot of success this season."
Tyler Bozak said Montreal's quickness poses the Leafs' greatest obstacle.
"They've got a lot of team speed. They're not the biggest team, but their forwards work hard and they're good at cycling," Bozak explains. "Their forecheck is a high point of their game, and they come at you quick."
3. Home ice means nothing… and everything
Montreal won three straight games at the Air Canada Centre prior to Saturday's loss. Toronto claimed both of the clubs' duels at the Bell Centre this season, enjoying its most decisive win over any team all year when it beat the Habs in their own building 6-0 back in early February.
Attend a Toronto-Montreal contest in either building, and you'll see a throng dotted with blue and red. The rink looks like a scheduling screw-up forced the Liberal and Conservative parties to hold a joint rally.
When Davis Drewiske notched a goal for the Habs Saturday at ACC, the cheers were remarkably vociferous. And late in the third, with the Buds holding a four-goal lead, Leafs Nation began to chant "Ole, Ole, Ole," mocking the victory song of the Montreal faithful.
"It was loud in there tonight. It always seems to be a little bit louder when we play the Habs, and I think it's gotten a bit louder as the years go on," Bozak said Saturday. "It would be pretty cool if (Habs-Leafs) was a matchup. Obviously it's been a while since we've been in there. I've been here for four years and still haven't made it."
4. P.K. Subban is playing the best hockey of his life
Raised in greater Toronto by a Habs-loving father, P.K. Subban holds strong ties to both cities. So much so, it was even suggested in some circles that the Leafs would be wise to tender an offer sheet this winter during the then-RFA's extended contract negotiations, which gave the rest of the league's defencemen a head start on that Norris Trophy race point-per-game P.K. now has a shot at.
"Toronto and Montreal? Come on, it doesn't get much better than that." Subban told Sportsnet's Chris Johnston last week. "If you're not fired up for that, you shouldn't be playing hockey."
Subban is playing some of the most inspired hockey of his young career and currently leads his team with 34 points. Only once in Montreal franchise history has a defenceman finished the season as the leading scorer (in 1921-22, Sprague Cleghorn tied brother Odie Cleghorn for the club crown).
5. The special teams battle is compelling
Montreal ranks No. 4 overall with the man advantage (21.9 per cent), while Toronto has the third-best kill (87.6 per cent). And the NHL's top two highest-scoring players on the power play, Markov (23 points) and Subban (22), both wear Habs sweaters.
"Special teams are a huge part of our game," Bozak said. "Our penalty kill's been pretty good all year. Jay McClement is a huge reason for that; he's out there for most of it and does a heck of a job."
Discipline will be at a premium. Toronto leads the league in PIMs per game (15.4), and Montreal is known for an infraction or two as well (ranking seventh in that category).
"Your goaltender is your best penalty killer then it goes to the defencemen, who must make sure they don't get those second and third opportunities," Leafs coach Carlyle explained. "A lot of it is hard work for our four guys."
Hard work causes the power play in the first place.
Take Kadri, who drew the penalty that led to Bozak's opening power-play goal Saturday. Kadri ranks third in the NHL among players with at least 30 games played in penalties drawn, 3.1 every 60 minutes (The players ahead of Kadri, Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta and Philly's Zac Rinaldo, appear destined to miss the postseason).
The special-teams contest is always heightened in May, and this one presents some interesting wrinkles.
6. Neither team wants to draw the Boston Bruins
Toronto futility against Boston has been well documented, and while Montreal has consistently proven capable of hanging with its nasty rival, a first-round tilt against the Eastern powerhouse would be taxing to say the least.
Boston is big and fighty and the second-hardest Eastern team to score against (next to Ottawa).
Even if the Leafs or Habs were to survive a seven-gamer against the B's, they'd likely be too taxed to succeed in their next round (see: 2012 Washington Capitals).
7. Joffrey Lupul will be back and ready to troop
Like Batman, Hulk Hogan, leg hair and, I believe, poison ivy, Lupul actually comes back stronger after he's knocked down. Responding fantastically after suffering a broken forearm early in the season, Lupul is now cleared for contact after dealing with a concussion.
"We know this game is very fickle. One day you're on top of the world, the next day you're on the bottom," Carlyle says. "The injury to Joffrey Lupul has taken us from a high to a low. We talked about wrapping him in bubble wrap - see if that might work."
8. Personal beefs aplenty
The Habs' Max Pacioretty said he went and got himself a tetanus shot after the Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski (a former Canadien) allegedly bit him during a skirmish in February.
Much was made of Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf not fighting Montreal tough nut Brandon Prust at the ACC later that month.
And Prust engaged Fraser McLaren in a lengthy, multiple-knockout bout on Saturday.
"You can see the chippiness, the hatred. The rivalry is building," new Leaf O'Byrne said. "This year it's special. You can see the intensity building."
One of the more interesting feuds might be between energetic youngsters Kadri and Gallagher, who got into it a bit on the weekend.
The 5'9" Gallagher, who doesn't know what it means to quit on a play, drew a pair of interference penalties on Saturday. He ranks in the top five among NHL rookies in points (22), goals (12) and plus/minus (plus-9). He also ranks high on Kadri's irritability list.
"We were going at it pretty much the whole game. I give him credit: he's a good little player, so I got to be hard on him," Kadri said Saturday. "It was mutual. I don't think either of us are quiet out there. Once one word is said, a couple others are, then (you see) a couple big hits."
9. Goals galore
Montreal and Toronto are tied for fifth overall in NHL scoring, with 128 goals apiece. Their four contests this season - Toronto leads the series 3-1 - have produced 22 red lamps. Both clubs wield potent offences threatening to break a game open.
The key line to watch is flanked by Leafs James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel. It's centred by Bozak, who has scored in three of the four Leafs-Habs contests this season.
"That's a pretty potent line. You got a little bit of everything on that line. Bozak's a smart centreman, JVR's a big power forward, and Phil's got a lot of speed. They're dangerous, and they're scoring," O'Byrne said.
The Leafs' first line could be gelling at just the right time.
"We hadn't played with James before, so I think it takes a little time to get chemistry, but I think we've been better in recent games, getting our cycle going and creating a lot more scoring chances," Bozak explained.
Said Carlyle, "I don't want them to be the type of line that trades chances with the opposition. We've been harping on that since Day 1, and that's not going to change. We have to play that way to have success."
10. Goaltending questions abound
"We don't ask him to win us games; we just ask him to give us a chance," Carlyle said of James Reimer, who takes a backset to Montreal's Carey Price in a comparison of goaltending pedigree. But just barely.
Reimer's line (2.46 GAA, .922 save percentage) is only marginally worse than Price's (2.36 GAA, .912 save percentage), and Price endured the shortest start of his career Saturday, after he gave up three goals on four shots and was chased out by Leafs shooters.
On Feb. 9, the Habs were memorably shellacked by the Leafs 6-0 at the Bell Centre, but that prompted a run of 11 straight games in which Montreal earned at least a point.
"He's a great goalie and a big contributor to that team's success," Kadri said of Price, arguably the best active Canadian goalie.
Yet in Price's four NHL postseasons, he has a losing record (8-15-3) and his GAA (2.84) and save percentage (.907) are worse than his career regular-season marks.
Reimer, of course, is completely unproven in the second season. This would be an opportunity for one of them to establish themselves in crunch time.
(Fun fact: Backups Peter Budaj and Ben Scrivens hold identical .918 save percentages.)
Bonus reason: The cities need it
God bless the Alouettes and Impact, but Montreal is a hockey town and 2011-12's epic disaster needs to be forgotten as swiftly as possible.
Ditto Toronto, whose playoff drought across its major sports franchises has culminated in great hope for both the big-budget Blue Jays and the surprising Leafs.
For the playoffs to kick off with a Highway 401/Autoroute 20 rivalry, wow, civic morale will be boosted, the excitement in both towns will be tangible, and beer sales… don't get us started.