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The oldest rivalry in the National Hockey League is renewed on Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre. The rivalry between the Leafs and Habs dates back to 1917 and the teams have met in the playoffs on 15 occasions and in the Stanley Cup finals five times. The stakes might not be as high this time around—the Canadiens are headed to the playoffs while the Leafs are not—but these teams always go hard when they face each other. This game will be nationally televised both in the US and Canada on the NHL Network.
Most American hockey fans don’t accurately grasp the depth and intensity of the rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. It transcends a mere sports competition and is a manifestation of the rivalry—some would say hatred—between the cities themselves. Think the Boston vs. New York rivalry, only with a component of ethnicity and a language barrier thrown in for good measure. The Red Sox/Yankees rivalry may be the only one in US sports that can come close to having the history, competition and bad blood as Habs vs. Leafs.
The only thing that could possibly diminish the rivalry this time around is the fact that Montreal is headed to the postseason while Toronto is not. The Canadiens can’t pack it in entirely—they’re currently in 6th place but could drop as low as 8th depending what happens in their final two games of the season. They lead 7th place Buffalo by one point and 8th place New York Rangers by 2 points so they’ve still got some work to do. The Canadiens are also a defensively oriented team that wins with hard work and good goaltending—even if they rest some starters that philosophy won’t change with reserves in the lineup.
On the other hand, with Toronto not qualifying for the postseason this becomes something of a ‘statement’ game. The Leafs won the last meeting between the teams and they could view this as a way to reward the fans in the team’s final home game of the season. It’s not like Toronto is a bottom feeder—they’ll finish with a winning record in 10th place so it’s not a situation where they’re qualitatively not on the same level as Montreal.
As noted above, we don’t expect Montreal to roll over since they need to hold on to their playoff position. At the same time, however, we see Toronto coming into this game with much more intensity and sense of purpose. The Leafs will be well rested, with a 3 day break from their previous game, and their practices will focus on only one thing—beating the Canadiens in the season finale. We expect them to do just that.