Rivalries Made in Playoffs

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 9) – Yes, it will be special when the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens square off tonight at the Bell Centre.

Though younger fans may consider Ottawa Senators the Leafs No. 1 rival – recalling the four Toronto-Ottawa playoff match-ups in five years between 2000 and 2004 – the Leafs-Canadiens conflict is steeped in history. It dates to the earliest years of the National Hockey League and resonates similarly to Canada-Russia on the international stage. Any person lucky enough to have attended the Canada-Russia game at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will understand the uniqueness of the rivalry. Never in all of my years watching hockey have I experienced as tumultuous an environment.

The Toronto-Ottawa example, however, is more palpable for modern-day observers. The enmity among players and fans of each team – heightened by the provincial element – flourished in the playoff encounters. Though Leafs prevailed in all four series, it did not depreciate the rivalry.

Toronto-Montreal playoff competition is consigned to history for any hockey fan less than 45 years of age. Though the 1967 Stanley Cup final has taken on mythical value in this region for it being the last Maple Leaf championship, the clubs did meet more recently – in the 1978 and 1979 playoffs.

The Leafs had no chance in either series, as Montreal was in the midst of its four-year Stanley Cup reign. Though several matches were extended to overtime, the Canadiens swept both best-of-seven engagements: a Cup semifinal match-up in ’78 after Maple Leafs had upset the New York Islanders and a quarterfinal encounter in ’79 following a Toronto victory over Atlanta Flames in a best-of-three preliminary round.      

CANADIENS CAPTAIN JEAN BELIVEAU (ABOVE) LOOKS FOR PASS IN FRONT OF LEAFS GOALIE TERRY SAWCHUK DURING 1967 STANLEY CUP FINAL AT THE MONTREAL FORUM. LEAFS UPSET THE HABS IN SIX GAMES TO WIN THEIR FOURTH CHAMPIONSHIP IN SIX YEARS UNDER GM/COACH PUNCH IMLACH. THE CLUB IS PICTURED, BELOW, AFTER WINNING THE ’67 CUP – TORONTO’S MOST RECENT NHL TITLE.

Between the 1981-82 and 1997-98 seasons, the Leafs and Canadiens were restricted to meeting in the Stanley Cup final, as they competed in separate Conferences. No such encounter took place. Leafs owner Harold Ballard – as a favor to his friend and Detroit Red Wings counterpart Bruce Norris – agreed to an arrangement whereby Toronto shifted from the Prince of Wales to the Campbell Conference. Leafs were grouped in the Norris Division with the Red Wings, Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota North Stars. Though it spawned a number of playoff rivalries in the 80’s and 90’s – particularly after the Leafs of Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin became contenders and made it to consecutive Conference finals in 1993 and 1994 – the Toronto-Montreal strife was missed.

The teams met just twice per season – once in each city – and came close to clashing for the Stanley Cup on only one occasion. Leafs had two chances to knock off Los Angeles in the ’93 Campbell Conference championship, but lost Games 6 and 7 to Wayne Gretzky and the Kings. L.A. was then defeated by Montreal in five games – the Habs winning their most recent Stanley Cup.

In 1997, the NHL passed a regulation that would have seen Toronto and Montreal reunite in the same Conference for the 2001-02 season. Leafs president Ken Dryden – the star goalie for Montreal during its Stanley Cup dynasty of the late-70’s – proposed an immediate realignment, one that would take effect in the 1998-99 season. When league governors asked Dryden why he felt the Conference switch should be hastened, he simply replied, “Why not?” With that, Toronto shifted from the Western to Eastern Conference in ’98-99 and joined a Northeast Division alignment with Ottawa, Montreal, Boston and Buffalo. The Leafs and Canadiens met on five occasions – three in Montreal and two in Toronto.

On the final day of the 2001-02 season, a combination of results would have engendered a Toronto-Montreal opening-round series. Sadly, it did not materialize and Leafs squared off against the New York Islanders. Victories over the Islanders and Senators put Leafs in the Conference final against Carolina. An injury-depleted line-up grew weary as the series progressed and the Hurricanes prevailed on an overtime goal by Martin Gelinas in Game 6 at Air Canada Centre. Leafs have not since been to the Stanley Cup semifinal.

So, enjoy tonight’s Toronto-Montreal encounter at the Bell Centre (7 p.m. Eastern on CBC). In the context of the regular season, it will once again prevail over other match-ups in interest and excitement. Until the Maple Leafs and Canadiens finally meet again in the playoffs, however, the intrinsic, fundamental nature of the rivalry will lay dormant.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES

After the most intense snow-storm in this region on Friday since January 1999, the skies cleared and gave way to a spectacular Saturday. Below are several images I snapped of the storm’s aftermath:

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