TORONTO (Jan. 19) — Back in October and November, when Carey Price was the best professional athlete on the planet, the notion of any club overtaking Montreal for first place in the Atlantic Division seemed preposterous. The Canadiens bolted to a 16–4–2 record, with Price yielding a miserly 25 goals in 15 games. All that appeared in question was how widely the Habs would sail to their third division title in five years.
That possibility is still very much alive, as Montreal continues to lead middling Boston by eight points in the standings with a couple of games in hand on the Bruins. However, lurking not–so quietly in the Atlantic’s No. 3 perch is the second–hottest team in the National Hockey League, and best team in the division by quite a margin since the closing weeks of 2016. Yes. The Toronto Maple Leafs. Extraordinarily, 9–1–1 in their past 11 outings and a mere two points in back of Boston… with six games in hand — resulting from the Collective Bargaining Agreement hiatus that contributed to a breezy slate of four games in 20 nights for the Maple Leafs between Dec. 24 and Jan. 12. That schedule recess also allowed Toronto to currently build a four–games–in–hand edge on the Canadiens, who remain 10 points up in the Atlantic, yet hardly out of reach.
Mitigating, in fairness, any division coup by the Leafs is that Toronto hasn’t prevailed in a head–to–head meeting with Montreal since Toe Blake stood behind the bench. Or, so it seems. Before the Leafs blow past the Canadiens, Mike Babcock’s crew will have to solve a remarkably one–sided affair that Montreal leads 9–0–2 in 11 matches dating to Jan. 18, 2014 (and includes an unblemished 3–0–0 mark this season). Last chance for the Blue and White is Feb. 25 at the Air Canada Centre. Otherwise, the concept of overtaking the Bruins and Canadiens is no longer at all preposterous. Not with the Leafs barely second to 9–0–1 Washington among scorching NHL teams… and with Montreal a pedestrian 9–9–4 since Nov. 26. Though still widely considered the premier puck–stopper in the league, Price has tumbled through the stratosphere and is now merely at airline–cruising altitude — 1–4 in his past five starts; the Canadiens being outscored, 20–8.
THE LEAFS HAVEN’T BEATEN CAREY PRICE AND THE CANADIENS SINCE JAN. 18, 2014. BUT, TORONTO IS SCORCHING–HOT RIGHT NOW; MONTREAL RATHER FLAT. GRAHAM HUGHES THE CANADIAN PRESS
I should also probably remind you the Leafs have one division title since 1962–63, that being the Pat Quinn–coached club of 1999–2000; the first Toronto side to accumulate 100 points in a season. In the same 54–year span, Montreal has 20 division championships and 10 Stanley Cups. So, the Leafs finishing ahead of the Canadiens isn’t exactly a trend. That said, the apparent gap between the teams has narrowed considerably since the Habs were running away with the division. Even one month ago today — on Dec. 19 — Montreal was 20–7–4 for 44 points; the Leafs 12–12–7 for 31. Since then, the Canadiens have played 15 games; the Leafs 11. And, Toronto has narrowed the points margin from 13 to 10 (with the four games in hand).
Now, clearly, the Maple Leafs must prove they are indeed different from the Toronto clubs of recent ilk that have also put together impressive streaks at or near the mid–season mark, only to crumble down the stretch. Hopeful Leaf rooters will say “of course this team is different; the others didn’t have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Frederik Andersen; nor were they coached by Mike Babcock.” All of which is true and may, in fact, result in a distinguishing, second–half performance. But, neither, in my view, can the Canadiens be counted on to stay flat. They may not put together another 13–1–1 sprint (their eruption to start the season), but Price will get hot again; center Alex Galchenyuk just returned after missing six weeks; David Desharnais (out since Dec. 6) and Brendan Gallagher (since Jan. 4) will ultimately be back, as well.
Moreover, the law of averages indicates the Leafs will not remain injury–free in the second half; top defenseman Morgan Rielly is likely to miss a couple or three starts after twisting his knee in Tuesday night’s comeback victory over Buffalo. The current slog of 15 games in 28 nights will likely claim another victim or two — thus Babcock’s aversion to the CBA–mandated holiday the Leafs enjoyed for five days last week. All teams still must play 82 games and the schedule can become absurdly compressed. So, the young Maple Leafs have some big–time hurdles to clear (and avoid) before they start breathing down Montreal’s neck.
Statistically, however, catching the Habs is rather doable. It necessitates Toronto capitalizing on its four games–in–hand — and claiming a regulation–time victory over Montreal in the four–pointer here in town on Feb. 25 (talk about the law of averages). If the Leafs have a good second half and are able to threaten the 95–point mark, chances are Montreal and Toronto will be nose–to–nose in the final weeks of the schedule.
And, wouldn’t that be a treat for the long–suffering souls around here?
LOVE AND FURY
Sportsnet caught a bizarre sequence during the second period of Tuesday night’s Toronto–Buffalo game at the Air Canada Centre — one that Sabres goalie Robin Lehner would rather forget:
FIRST, LEHNER WAVED TO A PRETTY FAN AT ICE–LEVEL AS SHE CAPTURED AN I–PHONE IMAGE…
THE FAN AND HER SEAT–MATE LOOKED AT THE PHOTO WHILE AN ANNOYED LEHNER WAS PULLED FROM THE GAME BY COACH DAN BYLSMA (AFTER GIVING UP THREE GOALS IN NINE MINUTES)…
AS LEHNER THREW A MINI–TANTRUM, THE FAN DRANK A TOAST; THEN LOOKED UP BEMUSEDLY.