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Nearly six months since the Montreal Canadiens last played a competitive game, they head on the road to visit the Toronto Maple Leafs for the first of 1271 games to be played in the NHL’s regular season.
This century-old matchup has often been a featured event for the NHL, and the teams rarely disappoint when they share a sheet of ice. The dominance has ebbed and flowed over that time, with different teams rising to the top. While it’s clear the Leafs currently have the upper hand in the matchup, a strong pre-season showing from a Canadiens team in transition suggests the season series may not be as lopsided as some had expected.
After the Canadiens had controlled the rivalry for the first several years of Mike Babcock’s tenure, last year the Leafs swept the season series, outscoring Montreal 18-5 in four games. Adding the top free-agent forward in the off-season is only going to make them more potent, though the Canadiens made a few changes to their own offensive game as well.
Tale of the Tape
|0-3-0||H2H Record (17-18)||3-0-0|
Stats from 2017-18 season
On paper, off-season losses of Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk should have taken what was an anemic offence a year ago and squeezed out what little life remained. However, that’s not what was seen from the current group in its pre-season matches, thanks to a combination of new, skilled players and a revamped coaching staff that knows how to deploy them.
Galchenyuk’s departure came with Max Domi’s arrival. As a player with previous experience in the centre position, he was used in the opening part of training camp in that role. He may not have seen much time in that position, but it did move Jonathan Drouin to the wing right away, and we saw a completely different player in September from the one who struggled in the middle of the ice for the entirety of his first year in Montreal.
One player who isn’t struggling with the transition is Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who went from looking like a player unable to keep up with AHLers in the Rookie Showdown to one of the Habs’ best all-around players in the final pre-season games. His emergence alone is raising hope for the future among fans; and it will be fun to see just how far this rapid progression can take him in his rookie year.
The Leafs’ centre addition came via free agency, as they landed one of the most prominent players to test the market in recent years. John Tavares has a lengthy deal to play in his home province, but also gets to slot into a second-line role behind Auston Matthews, which will help alleviate some of the pressure that goes along with the move. He posted another season of more than a pont per game last year, and there’s little reason to expect anything less on a team with as much firepower as Toronto.
The offences of both teams seem to be improved from one year ago, but the clubs do have issues with their blue line, and that may be the limiting factor on how high each team can rise in 2018-19.
Noah Juulsen and Victor Mete have emerged as a trustworthy duo after finding their legs in the top league last season. Mikey Reilly has also taken a major step forward from the level he showed in 19 games with Montreal after coming over from Minnesota. However, with Shea Weber out, and him not having a bona fide top-pairing partner to begin with, everyone will be playing above their ability, and the strain may prove too much to compete with more balanced squads.
For the Leafs, the goal is the Stanley Cup, even if it means needing to outscore their errors on defence. The players in Montreal will have a goal not nearly so lofty, aiming to secure a post-season berth to get at least a shot at a playoff run. It’s going to be a difficult proposition for a team missing several pieces, but a victory over the team many regard as the best in the NHL would give their confidence a major boost to start off the new campaign.