Johnston: Leafs and Canadiens need to step up

With many in the hockey world hoping the stars (and standings) align to bring the historical rivals together for a best-of-seven this spring, we must wait to see if the teams are even capable of playing each other in a game worthy of that kind of stage. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – For all of the talk of rivalry and history and passion, something notable has been missing from games between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

Compelling hockey.

At this point, it’s probably going to take a much-anticipated playoff series just to produce even one game this season that lives up to the expectations of those in the building — not to mention the considerable hype that accompanies each meeting of the Original Six squads.

After opening the lockout-abbreviated schedule with a bit of a snoozer back in January, Toronto and Montreal have now played three consecutive contests that ended with a lopsided score.

“I don’t think it was typical Montreal-Toronto hockey game,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said following his team’s 5-1 victory on Saturday night.

There was no stranger sight than seeing Canadiens goalie Carey Price chased to the bench after just 10 minutes 25 seconds of action — the quickest pull of his pro career.

Price surrendered three goals on four shots, including a major softie off the stick of Leo Komarov from a bad angle. The Leafs agitator is extremely open about the fact he generally has hands of stone, telling reporters “I’m not a goal-scorer.”

“Every time we shot on the net it went in,” added Komarov.

The trend continued when Habs backup Peter Budaj was beaten through the five-hole by Dion Phaneuf on the first shot he faced after relieving Price.

With the score 4-1 in Toronto’s favour at the first intermission, much of the drama had already been drawn out of the evening. It happened quickly and without warning.

“I thought we were setting the tone in the first period,” said Habs coach Michel Therrien. “We were skating well, managing the puck well. We were playing our game.

“But every time the puck was on our net … I’m sure Carey would like to see some of those shots again, but we take that as a team.”

Price, of course, has made significant contributions in a season where the Habs have already locked up a playoff spot and continue to lead the Northeast Division. There is no reason for panic based on one off-night.

However, the fact that it happened against Toronto (which also beat him 6-0 on Feb. 9) makes it even tougher to handicap any potential post-season matchup.

Do we really know who has the upper hand here?

Sure, the Leafs have won three of four head-to-head matchups, but there isn’t anyone involved on either side of the rivalry that believes both teams have brought their best performance at the same time in any of those games.

Take the goaltending, for example.

Most impartial observers would almost certainly say the Habs hold the advantage in that area, especially considering how much more experience Price has than James Reimer, but the Leafs goaltender has easily been the better of the two when they’ve gone head to head this year.

Reimer has now stopped 73 of 74 shots while winning his two starts against Montreal this year and seemed genuinely sympathetic after seeing Price get yanked on Saturday night.

“You know the pain he’s going through when things don’t go your way like they didn’t for him tonight,” said Reimer. “Everybody has a day off, has a bad day. It’s just what happens, we’ve all had them.

“The best of the best that have played the games for 100 years have all had tough games.”

Other important questions have gone unanswered during this disjointed season series, although the Toronto players believe they have successfully established a physical edge of their counterparts from Montreal.

Nazem Kadri was one of the players leading the charge for the Leafs on Saturday night. He took a few seconds to stand over Lars Eller after hammering the Habs forward in the corner.

“I just let him know that he got hit pretty hard,” said Kadri.

The 22-year-old centre acknowledged that the possibility of facing Montreal in the playoffs provided a little extra motivation for finishing bodychecks in a game that was never really in doubt over the final two periods.

“We understand what fate could bring,” said Kadri. “This is a potential first-round matchup and I think they understand the style we play. They came in our building and we wanted to take full advantage of that.”

There is at least one guaranteed meeting left between Toronto and Montreal, but with it falling on the final day of the regular season there’s every chance both teams won’t be fully engaged for it. Who knows, they might not even be dressing all of their regulars if nothing remains on the line.

So with many in the hockey world hoping the stars (and standings) align to bring the historical rivals together for a best-of-seven this spring, we must wait to see if the teams are even capable of playing each other in a game worthy of that kind of stage.

You can bet that Price is probably among the few rooting against a Toronto-Montreal playoff series materializing. Should that happen, he might be forced to review tape of Saturday’s debacle at Air Canada Centre and that is something he seemed to have little interesting in doing.

“What would there be to watch, really?” he asked rhetorically.

The truth of the matter is we really having seen anything of note just yet.

Perhaps the best is yet to come.

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