Leafs Face Canadiens in NHL Opener

If there’s one word to describe the recent years of this rivalry, it’s parity. In the last twenty three meetings, Toronto narrowly leads the series 12 wins to 11-with almost forty percent of the games decided by a single goal. Despite the close record of the series, the two teams play quite contrasting styles. Montreal utilizes speed and a strong powerplay, whereas Toronto supplements its skilled players with bruising physicality. Last year’s five games featured some exciting goals, a smattering of fisticuffs, and an infamous biting incident. Let’s see how this year’s versions of these teams match up:

Canadiens Add Toughness in Offseason
Montreal addressed issues of ‘toughness’ by trading for fourth line enforcer George Parros. The team hopes that his brand of on-ice justice might deter more physical teams (see: Toronto) from trying to push around a smaller Canadiens squad. They also signed veteran Danny Briere, whose powerplay and playoff expertise should come in handy.

Toronto’s offseason goals revolved around depth and experience. They picked up winger David Clarkson, whose pesky style and scoring touch made him the biggest free agent acquisition of the offseason. The Leafs also added goaltending depth by trading for highly touted prospect Jonathan Bernier. Finally, the team signed veterans Mason Raymond (F), Paul Ranger (D) and Dave Bolland (F), all of whom bring experience to a young group.

Both Teams Good on the Road
Maybe it’s because of intense hometown media scrutiny; or perhaps it’s due both the opposing fanbases flooding into the others’ arena, but there’s something weird about playing at home in this rivalry. In the last four seasons, Toronto and Montreal have better away records than home records when playing each other. So while there’s usually some edge for the home team, Tuesday’s Montreal locale might actually benefit the Maple Leafs.

Injury and Suspension Report
Last year’s playoffs saw Montreal lose six starters to injury, including Captain Brian Gionta and goaltender Carey Price, and they still can’t seem shake the bug. Most notably, defenseman Alexei Emelin is still recovering from knee surgery and will be gone until November. Montreal will miss his physicality against a decidedly more truculent Leafs squad.  Also of note, hard hitting, and fighting, wingers Brandon Prust and George Parros are both nursing ‘upper body injuries’ but are each likely to play. Finally, the Canadiens’ captain Brian Gionta is apparently healthy after tearing his bicep last May. Gionta looked fine in his preseason debut on Thursday, recording an assist.

Toronto’s enforcer Frazer McLaren will be out, which basically means one less person George Parros can fight. They also will be short free agent pickup David Clarkson. Clarkson left the team’s bench to join a line brawl last week against Buffalo. If you’re unfamiliar with the NHL’s code of conduct, this is basically the only act that carries with it a mandatory ten game suspension. Team scoring leader Phil Kessel was also suspended in the incident but only for the remainder of the preseason.

The Officers of the Oblong Onionbags (Goaltenders)
In picking up Jonathan Bernier in the offseason, the Maple Leafs created a goalie controversy. Last season’s starter James Reimer is coming off a career year. At the same time, Bernier’s 1.88 GAA last year was second in the NHL and can’t be ignored. Coach Randy Carlyle hasn’t announced the starter for Tuesday, but both men pose a challenge that Montreal’s offense will need to solve.

Montreal’s Carey Price regressed significantly last season and he was injured during their first round playoff loss to Ottawa. Additionally, Price’s numbers against Toronto last season were horrific (4.12 GAA and .840 sv%). After such shaky performances last year, Toronto will be assaulting Price with shots early and often.

Close Game Projected
On paper this game looks very close. The Leafs improved by making number of good offseason signings, while Montreal mostly stood pat with the roster that finished second in the East last year. In Emelin and Clarkson, both teams are missing important but not paramount players. And home-ice doesn’t seem to play a role.

So what will decide this game? The smart money is on goaltending. Both Maple Leaf netminders are coming off very strong seasons and will be competing hard under a ‘win and you’re in’ team policy. Meanwhile, Carey Price was poor in general last year, and brutal against Toronto. If he can’t find his game, Montreal will be in for a long night and even longer season.

Patrick Blye

Patrick Blye is a writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. Growing up in the centre of the hockey universe, Patrick is an active fan, player and hockey blogger. Patrick loves sports, books, travelling, and scotch.

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