How to watch
Start time: 7:00 PM EST / 4:00 PM PST
In Canada: Sportsnet (English), TVA Sports (French)
Elsewhere: NHL.tv / Rogers NHL Live
March 11, 2020 dawned without great fanfare. In Montreal, after losing to the Nashville Predators the previous night, the Canadiens awoke a full 10 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Nonetheless, the team prepared to press onward until mathematical elimination, and continued with preparations for their date with the Buffalo Sabres the following night.
At around 1:00 PM, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. With only 117 confirmed cases in Canada at the time, for Canadiens fans, that news was probably overshadowed by what came three hours later: an announcement saying Jesperi Kotkaniemi would be out for the season with a spleen injury.
That night, after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19, the sporting world ground to a halt. North America as a whole would follow shortly thereafter.
Tale of the Tape
|2.99||Goals per game||3.40|
|3.11||Goals against per game||3.24|
Ten months later, the world is not yet free from the grip of COVID-19, but an end is potentially in sight thanks to the global scientific community. Amidst this cautious optimism, the NHL embarks upon a regular season unlike any other in history — and what better way to offer a sense of normalcy than by starting with Montreal versus Toronto?
The Canadiens of March 10 were a sad lot, losing not just three in a row, but 10 of their previous 14 games. Bright spots like Brendan Gallagher and surprises like Ben Chiarot and Nick Suzuki were not enough to salvage a season that was rapidly approaching the River Styx. However, an unprecedented situation would bring an unprecedented reprieve, and 24th overall would be just enough to sneak into the NHL post-season bubble. With a recovered Kotkaniemi and a rested Carey Price and Shea Weber, Gally, ‘Zukes,’ and the gang managed to cause quite a stir in Toronto, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins to qualify for the playoffs before falling to a red-hot Carter Hart in the first round.
As the Habs were learning how to climb the mountain, the Toronto Maple Leafs were falling into the same crevasses. The third-best offence in the regular season struggled to find the back of the net against the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Baltic goaltending tandem. For a time, it seemed like a furious comeback in Game 4 would give the Buds the momentum needed to shake off their tenacious foe, but a limp shutout defeat in the do-or-die Game 5 proved that it was merely a stay of execution. For the third year in a row, the Leafs withered prematurely on the vine.
Marc Bergevin took several things from Montreal’s bubble performance. First, his two young centres would form the spine of the team for the near and distant future. Second, more goals were needed from a winger core that was defensively adept but lacked offensive depth. Third, size was still lacking on the left side of defence aside from Chiarot. Finally, the team needed to be able to rest Price to get the most out of him.
Suzuki and Kotkaniemi’s emergence made Max Domi surplus to requirements, and Bergevin used him to acquire Josh Anderson. The general manager further targeted Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson, and Jake Allen to remedy weaknesses he saw during the summer, finally tapping into the cap space that had sat unused for years. Youngsters like Jake Evans and Alexander Romanov flesh out the lineup, making this arguably the deepest and most well-rounded Canadiens team since Bergevin’s arrival.
Down the Highway of Heroes, Toronto resisted calls for radical change after failing to make the post-season. Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci were lost to free agency, while Kasperi Kapanen was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In response, the Leafs signed T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, and Mikko Lehtonen to shore up their blue line, while hoping that Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds can tip the scales up front. Leafs fans will also be eagerly watching to see if Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin can make an impact, although it’s uncertain whether they will be regular players from day one.
On Wednesday night, the puck will drop for the 818th meeting between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. On one side, a team just hitting its stride; on the other, a team trying to regain theirs. The line between regular season and playoffs becomes blurry in this unique condensed season featuring nine or 10 meetings with each opponent. Every game — especially those against “regular-season” teams — will be a sign of whether the Canadiens are truly built for the post-season or not.