TORONTO – The game was not yet five minutes old and it already had the first of many memorable moments. When Nazem Kadri dangled the puck through Alexei Emelin’s legs and set up Cody Franson for a gorgeous goal it proved to be the sign of things to come on an unusually energetic Saturday night at Air Canada Centre.
And as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens proceeded to go back and forth over the next 55 minutes, you didn’t really want to see this one to end.
Imagine if these two teams were ever to meet in a seven-game series? This might as well have been a playoff game because it had a little bit of everything: Atmosphere, jaw-dropping plays, big hits, trash talk and a celebration by James van Riemsdyk on the winning goal that is certain to carry over to the next meeting between the teams in March.
“If they wanted to play that game, then we’ll play it too,” van Riemsdyk said after tugging on the crest of his sweater – a direct shot at Habs defenceman P.K. Subban – in the moments following his game-winner against Carey Price.
From the Leafs perspective, the animosity with Montreal stems back to a celebration by Max Pacioretty at the Bell Centre on Nov. 30. The Habs winger put his stick away like a sabre after beating Jonathan Bernier to make it 4-0 that night.
Subban added more fuel to the fire on Saturday by chirping the Leafs bench after Brendan Gallagher scored in the first period to make it 1-1. The flashy Montreal defenceman had already made headlines earlier this week for pulling on the crest of his sweater after scoring in overtime to beat Ottawa – a few Sens expressed their displeasure – and it was clearly something the Leafs took note of as well.
“When you play a team a lot in the year, you start hating some guys over there and their reaction after goals and things like that,” Bernier told Sportsnet after Toronto’s entertaining 5-3 victory on Saturday. “Pacioretty had one in their building and I think if you watched the game a couple nights ago against Ottawa with Subban … those are the type of plays that you start hating guys and it makes it fun.”
You could produce a pretty long list if you tried to jot down all of the perceived slights and shots exchanged between players on both sides. The fact Montreal also has that kind of rivalry bubbling with Ottawa following an extremely physical playoff series last spring makes for some interesting possibilities for future matchups between Canada’s three Eastern Conference teams.
And with all three now dreaming of better days ahead, why not?
It has been 35 years since the Leafs and Habs met in the playoffs – although they very nearly ended that long drought last spring. In the wake of Saturday’s game, players on both sides expressed hope that they might be part of the next series between the Original Six rivals.
“It was close last year,” said Gallagher. “It almost happened. You could see the last month fans in both cities were really looking forward to it. It would be pretty crazy, and I’m sure it’ll happen soon enough.”
Added Bernier: “If you watched that game tonight – lots of intensity, lots of hits – it would definitely be a pretty good matchup.”
What made their latest meeting so compelling was that the big personalities and highest-profile players from each side were right in the middle of the action. Subban was all over the ice and gave the Leafs bench a pretty good staredown along with a piece of his mind after Gallagher’s goal.
Then Phil Kessel put the Leafs ahead with his 23rd of the season and Kadri followed his earlier setup with another highlight-reel pass to Mason Raymond to make it 3-1. But the Habs would not go lightly, with captain Brian Gionta scoring with 11.2 seconds left in the second period before David Desharnais tipped home the tying goal midway through the third.
A bit of a broken play saw the puck end up on Tyler Bozak’s stick and he threaded a perfect pass through to van Riemsdyk, who redirected it past Price at 14:27. The building was rocking as he slammed into the boards and tugged at his sweater.
“I’m usually not one to engage in stuff like that, but I was a little bit fired up,” said van Riemsdyk. “It just kind of happened. It is what it is.”
It was pretty compelling, that’s what it was, and you can be sure that more is still yet to come. The Original Six “rivalry” has largely existed on past memories and sentiment for a long time now, but it’s clear that the current batch of players has a growing distaste for one another.
And with fans of both teams packing the building no matter where the games are played – there was Bleu-Blanc-Rouge all over the ACC on Saturday – it just adds to the entire spectacle.
“This is why you play the game,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after his team’s fourth straight win. “If you don’t get shivers and chills for Toronto-Montreal on a Saturday night on ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ – either in Montreal or Toronto – then I don’t think you understand the true meaning of the game here in Canada.”