TORONTO (Aug. 11) — For so many years in the post–1967 (or expansion) era of the National Hockey League, it was unthinkable that the Toronto Maple Leafs would be acres ahead of the Montreal Canadiens.
Fans of both clubs are keenly aware that Montreal leads Toronto 10–0 in Stanley Cup victories since Canada’s Centennial bash. And, that no club could even approach the dynastic Canadiens of the late–1970’s — the teams of Scotty Bowman, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson Serge Savard et al — that ran roughshod over the opposition, sweeping Toronto in eight consecutive games during quarterfinal playoff rounds of 1978 and 1979. It was men against boys (or, with the Maple Leafs, infants) in the NHL of that time.
But, oh my, has the worm ever turned.
With training camps set to open next month (didn’t Washington just win the Cup?), the 2018–19 Canadiens are one injury removed from being perhaps the worst Montreal team in the expansion era. Were Carey Price to go down for any length of time, the Habs could easily threaten the club mark for fewest points in a full schedule: 70 in 2000–01 (28–40–14). That team also extended the franchise record playoff absence to three years. Montreal came very close to equaling the dubious points standard last season, with 71 (29–40–13). And, the club embarks on the coming schedule in the absence of veteran defenseman Shea Weber, who will likely miss half the games recovering from knee surgery. The Maple Leafs are therefore all–but certain to maintain the unprecedented chasm from a year ago, when they finished a club–record 35 points ahead of the Canadiens (the 2000–01 team, under Pat Quinn, held a 30–point margin over Montreal).
As mentioned, this is almost virgin territory for the Maple Leafs. On numerous occasions in the 70’s and 80’s, the clubs were in the same league, but a different dimension. It was most one–sided in 1972–73, when Montreal finished 56 points ahead of Toronto (120–64). In 1981–82 (109–56) and 1988–89 (115–62), the gap was 53. The 1976–77 Canadiens, who set an all–time record with 132 points, out–distanced the Leafs by 51.
EVEN WITH HALL–OF–FAMERS LANNY McDONALD (LEFT) AND DARRYL SITTLER, THE MAPLE LEAFS OF THE MID–TO–LATE–1970’s WERE NO MATCH FOR KEN DRYDEN AND THE DYNASTIC CANADIENS.
Of course, this pre–supposes that the Canadiens are going to stay “down” for a period of time, while the Leafs remain “up” — neither of which has been common. Though nothing about Montreal’s current roster suggests a quick revival, the club did record 100–or–more points three times in the past five years. Price can perform wonders in goal. And, hockey fans in Toronto know how fleeting success has been for their team. Still, a Habs’ club with Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn and Jeff Petry anchoring the blue line (during Weber’s absence) hardly invokes memory of the Robinson–Savard–Lapointe trio in the 1970’s. Neither does Montreal remotely match up against the Maple Leafs Big 6 forwards — John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau. So, the current pattern is likely to subsist for awhile.
The 2018–19 NHL schedule pits the Leafs and Canadiens against one another four times: Opening Night (Oct. 3) at Scotiabank Arena; Closing Night (Apr. 6) at the Bell Centre; Feb. 9 at Montreal; Feb. 23 at Toronto. The train–loads of Leaf zealots that pour into downtown Montreal for the two Saturday–night encounters aren’t likely to go home disappointed. Of course, Toronto fans have lots of catching up to do with their Montreal counterparts, who can still hold up the digits on both hands as a reminder of the 10–0 lead in Stanley Cups since 1967. And, the current imbalance between the clubs isn’t particularly good for the game.
Toronto and Montreal haven’t met in the playoffs since 1979; coming close only twice in the interim — 1993, when the Leafs coughed up a 3–2 series lead against Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup semifinals, and 2002, when results on the final day of the regular season resulted in a Leafs–Islanders opening–round series. Furthermore, the Leafs and Habs haven’t engaged in a competitive playoff round since the pre–expansion era of the 60’s, when the clubs were in perennial Stanley Cup contention (again, the Habs swept the quarterfinal rounds of 1978 and ’79). A renewal of that intense rivalry is something current–day Toronto and Montreal fans can only dream (or read) about. Nothing would stir emotions in either city more than a post–season battle between the clubs; unlikely in the immediate future given the Canadiens’ thin roster.
PERHAPS ONE DAY THE LEAFS AND HABS WILL RE–VISIT THEIR PLAYOFF RIVALRY OF THE 60’s.
In the realm of chest–thumping, Maple Leaf rooters finally have the edge.
Just for how long remains to be seen.
NHL GAME—WORN ALTERNATE JERSEYS
A look at alternate (or third) jerseys worn by NHL teams in the regular season; the playoffs, and during the Stadium Series; Heritage Classic and the outdoor Bridgestone Winter Classic.
PHOENIX COYOTES — 1998–99
DALLAS STARS — 2003–04
COLORADO AVALANCHE — 2009–10
NEW YORK RANGERS — 1996–97
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING — 1991–92
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING 2011–12
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS — 1991–92
LEFT: TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS — 2010–11 / RIGHT: TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS — 2011-12
VANCOUVER CANUCKS — 1996–97
VANCOUVER CANUCKS — 2005–06
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS — 1981–82
LEFT: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS — 2008–09 / RIGHT: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS — 2010–11
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS — 2008–09
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS — 1995–96
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS — 1998–99
ANAHEIM DUCKS — 2013–14
EDMONTON OILERS — 2002–03
CALGARY FLAMES — 2005–06
LOS ANGELES KINGS — 2010–11
LOS ANGELES KINGS — 2013–14
NASHVILLE PREDATORS — 2002–03
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS — 2011–12
FLORIDA PANTHERS 1998–99
MINNESOTA WILD — 2010–11
COLORADO AVALANCHE — 2001–02
BOSTON BRUINS — Jan. 1, 2010
COLORADO AVALANCHE — 2015–16
MINNESOTA WILD — Feb. 21, 2016
WASHINGTON CAPITALS — Jan. 1, 2015
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS — Jan. 2, 2017
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS — Mar. 3, 2018
ST. LOUIS BLUES — Jan. 2, 2017
LOS ANGELES KINGS / SAN JOSE SHARKS — Feb. 21, 2015
DETROIT RED WINGS — Feb. 21, 2016
COLORADO AVALANCHE — Feb. 21, 2016
MONTREAL CANADIENS / OTTAWA SENATORS — Dec. 16, 2017