TORONTO (Feb. 16) — That dream match–up between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is beginning to look more like a fantasy. As expected.
Squarely to blame are the Leafs and Boston Bruins — both scorching–hot once again and starting to pull away as the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the Atlantic Division. On a collision course for yet another meeting to begin the Cup chase in the second week of April. Boston blanked Anaheim late last night, 3–0, at the Honda Center for its fourth consecutive victory to move back within a point (75–74) of second–place Toronto. The Bruins are 6–1–2 in their past nine games; the Leafs 7–1–1. Both see action tonight out west: the Leafs at Arizona (7 p.m. Eastern); the Bruins at Los Angeles (10:30 p.m.). The Canadiens, by comparison, are hardly floundering (8–3–1 in their past 12), but have lost two in a row and play tonight in Tampa (7 p.m.) against the National Hockey League’s best team. For now, the Habs have fallen five points off the pace (trailing Boston 74–69) and the gap will widen if the favorites prevail this evening. Montreal plays at Florida tomorrow night.
It was only last Saturday that the Maple Leafs and Canadiens engaged in a scintillating quarrel at the Bell Centre; each club countering the other with control of play until John Tavares decided the match for the visitors at 2:17 of overtime. The three–point outcome (and a three–win flat–spot by the Bruins in their previous nine games) had Toronto and Montreal holding down the No. 2 and 3 spots in the Atlantic. Fans and media in both cities began to wax poetically about a first playoff clash between the storied rivals since 1979, when the Canadiens (of Scotty Bowman, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur et al) were in a league of their own and infinitely superior to the Blue and White (with one very–memorable exception, as detailed later in this blog). Conversely, a 2019 encounter would feature parity among the clubs for the first time since six playoff battles in the 1960’s, when Montreal and Toronto combined to win nine of 10 Stanley Cups (the Habs in 1960–65–66–68–69; the Leafs in 1962–63–64–67; only Chicago, in 1961, interrupting the pattern).
JOHN TAVARES BEATS CAREY PRICE IN OVERTIME LAST SATURDAY IN MONTREAL, ENDING A TERRIFIC NIGHT OF ENTERTAINMENT AT THE BELL CENTRE. GRAHAM HUGHES THE CANADIAN PRESS
Of course, with seven weeks remaining in the regular season, there’s a chance the Leafs and Canadiens could still wind up two–three in the Division and face off in the opening round. But, I doubt it. I’ve felt all along that Boston and Toronto are the best teams behind runaway leader Tampa Bay in the Atlantic and will again clash to begin the Cup tournament. Still to be determined is home–ice advantage, which would benefit the Bruins more than the Leafs (yes, Boston’s mettle will be challenged without leading scorer David Pastrnak for the next couple of weeks). In the most–likely scenario, Toronto and Montreal wouldn’t meet til the second round of the playoffs… and only on the cusp of two upsets: the Lightning being eliminated by the No. 2 Wild Card team (today, Pittsburgh) and the Maple Leafs overcoming their dominance by the Bruins.
Possible? Yes. Probable? Not really.
GO WEST, YOUNG TEAM: Remarkably, the Leafs are a perfect 9–0–0 on the road against Western Conference teams heading into tonight’s match in Glendale, Ariz. With victories at Chicago (Oct. 7), Dallas (Oct. 9), Winnipeg (Oct. 24), Los Angeles (Nov. 13), San Jose (Nov. 15), Anaheim (Nov. 16), Minnesota (Dec. 1), Colorado (Feb. 12) and Vegas (Feb. 14). Five more road encounters in the West remain after tonight — at St. Louis (Feb. 19), Calgary (Mar. 4), Vancouver (Mar. 6), Edmonton (Mar. 9) and Nashville (Mar. 19).
Last season, the Leafs were 8–6–1 away from home against West rivals.
STRETCHING THE TRUTH: It’s impossible to not admire John Tavares — on or off the ice. But, a commercial he taped for Sportsnet does strain credulity. In the spot, John claims his “first hockey memory” is watching the Leafs in the 1993 playoffs, during which Doug Gilmour and Co. famously played 21 games in 42 nights and fell one victory shy of making it to the Stanley Cup final. Tavares was born Sep. 20, 1990. If he truly does remember events at 2½ years of age, his brain should be used as a weapon to eradicate disease; curb hunger and wipe out terrorism. Not to score goals. For the record, my earliest hockey memory is watching the 1966 Stanley Cup final between Montreal and Detroit. I was seven years old.
SCENES FROM THE SPORTSNET COMMERCIAL IN WHICH JOHN TAVARES TAKES US BACK TO THE WOMB.
ILLUSTRIOUS COMPANY: Which hockey name is out of place here — Bernie Geoffrion, Lanny McDonald or Korbinian Holzer? If you know anything about the NHL, the answer is obvious. But, good old Korbinian, who played 58 games on defense for the Leafs from 2010–15, shares his birthday, today, with the aforementioned Hall–of–Famers. Holzer is 31. Lanny, 66. And, the Boomer (Geoffrion) would have been 88. He died of stomach cancer in Atlanta on Mar. 11, 2006, the day his No. 5 jersey was retired by Montreal.
ONE BRILLIANT EXCEPTION
Nov. 17, 1976 — Maple Leaf Gardens
The 1976–77 Montreal Canadiens are ranked, by many, as the greatest team in NHL history.
Not only as a result of the 132 points they compiled, most by any club in one season, but also their remarkable roster balance and the guidance of coach Scotty Bowman. Eight players from the team — Ken Dryden, Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt and Bob Gainey — are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. As are Bowman and general manager Sam Pollock in the “Builders” category. The ’76–77 Habs were 33–1–6 at home; 27–7–6 on the road. They had a goal–differential of plus–216 (387 scored; 171 yielded). They finished an astounding 91 points higher in the overall standings (132–41) than last–place Detroit. And, they required only 14 games, two more than the minimum, to win their second of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles — sweeping St. Louis in the quarterfinals; beating the New York Islanders in six in the semis and sweeping Don Cherry’s Boston Bruins in the championship round.
By comparison, the 1976–77 Maple Leafs were a beer–league team… even if top–heavy in talent with Mike Palmateer, Ian Turnbull, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming and Darryl Sittler. Toronto finished with 51 fewer points (132–81) than Montreal and coughed up a 2–0 series lead to Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, losing in six. The Maple Leafs (33–32–15) were plus–16 in goal–differential (200 inferior to the Habs) — scoring 301 and yielding 285. Yet, they played the Canadiens rather stoutly. Montreal gave up only 28 points in the standings all season (8 losses; 12 ties) and Toronto accounted for four, with a win and two draws in five games. On Nov. 17, 1976, at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Habs were blanked for the only time all season. Palmateer brilliantly stopped 39 shots in just his third week in the NHL. McDonald scored on Dryden near the midway mark of the first period and the little goalie preserved a startling, 1–0 victory.
I was at the Gardens that night; still 17 years of age. In my collection, I have the now 42–year–old program (cover, above, with Errol Thompson pictured; line–ups, below). It was a memorable clash.
In my Leaf scrapbooks from 1976–77 are the following items (Nov. 18, 1976) from the three Toronto dailies — the Star, Globe and Mail and Sun. Stories written by Jim Kernaghan, Don Ramsay and John Iaboni:
HOW GOOD WERE THE HABS?
See for yourself in the season–ending issue (Apr. 15, 1977) of The Hockey News:
As mentioned, the Leafs did fairly well against the Canadiens in 1976–77. Along with the 1–0 win at Toronto, detailed earlier, was a 3–3 tie at the Montreal Forum on Mar. 30, 1977 (summary, top–left). The Habs were more accustomed to annihilating opponents that season, as in their final home game of the regular schedule, on Saturday, Apr. 2 (top–right), against the third–year (and still hapless) Washington Capitals.