In light of the Bruins' struggles over the past season-and-a-bit, and since Toronto is also really, really bad, it's said fans can no longer count either the Leafs or the Bruins among the Habs' most intense matchups.
Can it be true? Who is currently the Habs' greatest rival? Let's check the mercury on Montreal's most hated opponents.
The contenders: Bruins, Senators, Lightning, Rangers, Maple Leafs.
The Case For: The playoffs are the breeding ground for fierce rivalries. If you subscribe to that philosophy, the B's and Habs form the most volatile rivalry of all time, having met more times in the playoffs than any other two teams. Those series have a habit of being long and nasty, with the last set going memorably to the Habs after seven games in 2014. For a long time, the Bruins were the symbol of Eastern contention, and the team still boasts its share of strong-to-elite players in Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Tuukka Rask.
Boston also tends towards a style of play that makes them the perfect villain for the Canadiens. Whereas the Habs usually look to their speed and transition play, combined with strong goaltending, the Bruins' approach involves big shots, a lot of rough stuff, and a sound two-way game.
The Case Against Boston: The Bruins didn't even make the playoffs last year, and it's been downhill from there. A series of offseason moves best described as unusual seem to have weakened the team, and Tuukka Rask has never looked more ordinary. His sub-.900 SV% to start the season forces a double take, even though it's a small sample size, it's weird to see Rask struggle so mightily. To boot, Rask doesn't struggle against any team as much as he does the Habs, against whom he has a 3-14-3 career record.
Although Boston has historically outshot and outpossessed the Habs, that trend appears to be reversing itself. Montreal wiped the floor possession-wise with Boston on Saturday before winning 4-2. The loss of Lucic also hurts this rivalry, as his ongoing feuds with Alex Emelin and Dale Weise made the WWE look like period drama.
Rivalry Thermometer: 22°C (72°F); warm, but nothing to write home about. The Bruins have enough talent to contest every game, and they still hate the Habs plenty post-Lucic. If the Bruins have the Habs in the playoffs this year it gets hot pretty quick.
The Case For: The Sens and Habs have met in the playoffs twice in the past three years, with the teams each winning a series in six games. On paper, the Habs look deeper, but the Sens boast a game-breaking forward core with Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan and sophomores Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone.
There's also defenseman Erik Karlsson, who provides a nice counterpoint to the Habs' PK Subban. They face a lot of the same criticism in terms of willingness to sacrifice defense for offense, but they've also got three Norris trophies between the two of them in the last three years. If you're looking for entertainment value, it's tough to beat watching either of these two play, let alone watching them play against each other.
The Case Against: In spite of these teams being close geographically and sharing some playoff history, they seem to be on different wavelengths. Expectations are monumentally higher for Montreal, where a trip to the finals is a realistic aim, than they are for Ottawa, where a trip past the first round should be considered a lofty goal.
The Sens are the Habs of a few years ago. They are refining their identity, they have a good coach, and if everything falls into place, maybe they'll build up the fan base so they won't have to listen to Habs fans chanting at the Canadian Tire Centre.
Rivalry Thermometer: 32°C (90°F); jerseys optional. These two teams really don't like each other, although that seems to matter a lot more to the Senators. Being the worse of the two teams will do that to you.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Case For: Tampa and Montreal finished 1-2 in the East last year, and met in the second round. There are generational talents at work here, with one of the best goal scorers in the league going up against one of its best goaltenders in Max Pacioretty and Ben Bishop.
Of course, that is a joke. Both Bishop and Pacioretty are well-respected, but the real story here is Steven Stamkos and Carey Price. Add P.K. Subban into the equation - he grew up playing with Stamkos - and it gets even more interesting. Add Tampa's defensive stud Victor Hedman and the plot thickens even more. Add the triplets. Add Patches. This is an interesting matchup.
The Case Against: The Habs are to Tampa as Ottawa is to Montreal: a team desperately trying to prove it can contend by matching up with the big boys. It's hard not to consider Tampa as the team to beat in the East, and their trip to the Stanley Cup final last year only cements that reputation.The playoffs series showed the separation between the two teams, as the controversy-free series was mostly a showcase of how far ahead the Lightning is.
When Brandon Prust left the Habs via trade, another potential wick was cut, and the rivalry is that much tougher to spark as a result. Montreal has a lot to prove against Tampa this season, and if it can do so this rivalry might heat up. As it stands, though, it's relatively cool.
Rivalry Thermometer: 20°C (68°F). Room temp; put on a sweater if you're cold.
The Case For: For starters, the Blueshirts are the only ones in this list that have a goalie who can hold a candle to Price. It's largely because of saves like this one:
Outside of Hank, the Blueshirts have a veteran forward core led by Derek Brassard and Rick Nash, while on D they have current star and former Hab draft pick Ryan Mcdonagh, received in the Scott Gomez trade with the Canadiens. Let's move on.
Chris Kreider infamously ran through Carey Price in the 2014 ECF, and that storyline is dredged up every time these two teams play each other now. Every team has somebody that seems to represent their capacity for villainy - Marchand in Boston, for instance, or Stone in Ottawa, or Rinaldo in Boston, or Chara in Boston - and in New York it's Kreider, who runs goalies and scores enough to be irritating but useful. I hate guys like that.
There's also more of a balance between the Habs and Rangers, who were bested by the Lightning shortly after the Habs were dismantled by Tampa in 2015. Although the series went the distance, New York seemed to realize their place by the end of it, mustering 22 shots in a feeble 2-0 game seven loss.
The Case Against: Where's the beef? Outside of Kreider and the occasionally temperamental Lundqvist, the Rangers are about as threatening as a wet hot dog. There's just not a lot to take umbrage with here, though Kreider may stir the pot occasionally. New York's window to compete seems to be closing. If they were going to win, why haven't they by now? It's a result of the East stregthening over the last few years with the rise of the Capitals, Canadiens, Lightning and Islanders,
And speaking of the boys from Brooklyn, that's always going to be the number one rivalry facing a competitive Rangers team. The two teams from New York are as diametrically opposed as fire and ice, cats and dogs, or Montreal and some team we're about to get to.
Rivalry Thermometer: 27°C (80°F). Kreider keeps things spicy.
The Case For: This is it. The big one. Toronto-Montreal. English-French. Red-Blue. The rivalry to end all rivalries.
Conventional wisdom holds that every time the Habs and Leafs play each other, the season isn't even considered, and both teams put forth their best effort regardless of their place in the standings. Sometimes, the games are great, and we get to see something magical.
The Case Against: A lot of the times the games are awful, and we see something putrid. Over the past few years, Montreal's dump-and-chase style has combined with the Leafs' general incompetency to create two and a half hour snoozefests with the occasional shootout to close things out.
The two teams haven't met in a playoff series since time immemorial, and the Leafs traded their only superstar in the off-season. The storylines between these two teams usually reflect on how they have been heading in different directions for the better part of a decade.
Rivalry Thermometer: 24°C (76°F) Look: we can't discount the impact of the fans and media on this one. Any time Montreal meets Toronto, it's a mashup of all the best hockey writers in the world churning out relevant content, and two well-informed-if-overwhelmingly-biased fanbases needling each other for a week before and after every game. It's a complete circus, even moreso than when the Habs play the Bruins.
The Verdict: Boston and Toronto are still rivals, but things are cooling off. New York and Tampa are fierce competition with elements of a great rival, but those relationships aren't as firmly established.
Only one team seems to have everything a real rival needs: superstar talent, recent playoff history, geographical proximity, an irritating fan base, and even a bit of postseason micro-controversy. That's right: the Ottawa Senators are arguably the Habs' greatest rival at the time of this writing.