Canadiens, Leafs ready to bring long overdue fireworks back to rivalry

Shawn McKenzie & Chris Johnston tee-up a big rivalry game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

MONTREAL — Count me among those lamenting Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds not being available to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Wednesday night's showdown with the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.

I want the full effect this rivalry promises this season — with two teams battling for Canadian supremacy, and both of them equipped to provide fireworks in every aspect of the game — to set the table for eight more games after this one and a possible meeting in the playoffs for the first time since 1979.

Is that too much to ask?

The standards are too low. When I said on a podcast before the season started — was it Steve Dangle’s? Probably — that this rivalry desperately needed some wind blown into its sails, some incredulous fan retorted that I seemed to have missed the heat we saw between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs last year, as if Max Domi calling Kasperi Kapanen a (expletive) idiot for throwing his stick at Jeff Petry qualified as the type of animosity we should be satisfied with after more than 100 years of games between these franchises.

A bottom-of-the-barrel Canadiens team beat an up, down, and then up again Maple Leafs team in all three of their meetings — with Toronto starting goaltender Frederik Andersen looking on from the sidelines — and it was a chapter of the story meant to be crumpled up and thrown into the fire pit. That anyone would consider that crap worthy of true rivalry tells you how long it’s been since both of these teams were simultaneously as relevant as the fans in each market want them to be every season.

It feels like it’s been so long that some people don’t even remember what it’s supposed to look like.

And even if the Montreal-Toronto rivalry was pretty good for a brief stint at the beginning of this millennium, it had nothing on the days Canadiens players would hit a Toronto restaurant, see some Maple Leafs players eating there and walk right out the door.

We may never get that again, but the fans should want games that truly mean something, with scoresheets filled in every category and ice surfaces littered with blood, sweat and tears. And I think Game 1 between these teams — doesn’t Jan. 13 already feel like months ago? — showed us the potential for all of that to be there.

Nine goals were scored, leads were earned and erased, bodies and fists flew, and it took part of an extra period to settle the score. It was beautiful.

I don’t think I’m being greedy asking to see more of that Wednesday, and for each of the eight additional Montreal-Toronto games that will be played before the playoffs start. So yeah, I’m going to miss seeing big No. 97 (Thornton) in blue and white almost as much as I’m going to miss seeing No. 24 (Simmonds), who walked away from a bigger offer from the Canadiens to sign with his hometown Maple Leafs before starting off his season with a rivalry-setting fight against Ben Chiarot.

Simmonds, who’s already scored five goals this season, won’t be attempting to punch anybody’s head off for at least six more weeks — he broke his wrist in a 5-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks last Saturday — and that means at least two of the games between Montreal and Toronto might be a little less spicy.

But I’m holding out hope the heat is still very much on — especially when I hear Burlington, Ont., native Josh Anderson, one of the newest Canadiens, take umbrage at the suggestion the Maple Leafs are widely considered Canada’s best team.

“We’re right there with them,” Anderson said Tuesday, with the Canadiens three points back of the Maple Leafs with a game in hand. “Obviously they’ve got a lot of skill, but we’re a pretty good hockey team, too. So, I guess we’ll find out (Wednesday) night.”

Ohhhhh yeah, brother! And not a minute too soon.

We’re talking about two of the three highest-scoring teams in the league — each of them with a winning percentage of at least .750 — going toe to toe on the national broadcast.

“It’s exciting,” Anderson said. “Growing up as a kid, you loved watching these games, you’d get up for these games. And to be experiencing it now — it’s very exciting, and I know a lot of people will be watching it, and it should be a great game.”

Montreal’s Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher both said they’re up for it.

The Maple Leafs are up for it, too. Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe referred to the rivalry Tuesday as “a privilege” to be a part of. And 37-year-old Jason Spezza, who’s played 67 games against the Canadiens (as a member of the Ottawa Senators, Dallas Stars and the Leafs), pointed out why it might be more special now than it has been in recent years.

“The whole Canadian Division this year is very unique,” Spezza said. “With the Habs and us getting off to a great start, that’s two excited fan bases. We’re aware of that. It’s exciting for us as players, too. They’re special rivalries that maybe we haven’t seen a lot of in the last few years. We have a chance to kinda reignite those fan bases and the rivalry. As players, that’s a great opportunity.”

“We hold (the Canadiens) in really high regard,” Spezza said. “They’re a team that does a lot of things right. They had success in the bubble last year because of it. They’re just a hardworking team. They’re deep. They play the right way. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. It’s going to be a good test for our team here.”

A good test for his first-place team, indeed.

You want to know what Gallagher said when he was asked about this being a measuring-stick game for the Canadiens?

“You’re not going to like this answer, but I could really care less about what the Leafs are doing,” he started. “They’re a very good team, they’ve got their own storyline that they’re following. For us it’s just about playing our game. Obviously we were disappointed we lost the first game to them. It’s a chance to get a little bit of revenge in that aspect, but for us we just want to put our best game forward and continue to grow as a team. We got goals that we set for our group, and we’re trying to reach those things, and we need to continue to get better every day.

"This is a good test for us, a very good hockey team. It’s going to be a challenge for sure. But for us we just gotta focus on doing the things we were doing so well earlier on in the year.”

If both the Canadiens and Maple Leafs do that Wednesday night, we’re getting the kind of game people deserve to see. Both teams are coming off ordinary performances that still led to wins, and both are eager to bring their best to the Bell Centre.

A pity fans can’t be in attendance. “We’ll miss them,” said Price, and so will I.

I’ll miss them, Thornton, Simmonds, and Montreal’s feisty winger, Corey Perry, if Joel Armia returns from injury to take Perry’s place in the lineup.

But there’s a sense this rivalry’s just getting warmed up, and it’s long overdue.

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