Montreal and Toronto’s Rivalry Makes a Muted Return to the Playoffs

TORONTO — Canada’s two most populous cities, Montreal and Toronto, are separated by 335 miles and by language, tradition and politics. But hockey has at all times pulled them collectively, besides at playoff time.

The Canadiens and the Maple Leafs have met in 15 N.H.L. postseason collection going again to 1918 and 5 instances in the Stanley Cup finals, however not since 1979.

They’ll meet once more Thursday in the opening spherical of the playoffs in Toronto, their first postseason collection in opposition to one another in 42 years.

It’s a traditional rivalry, however one which has been dormant, at the least in the postseason, solely to be remembered by these of a sure classic.

Of course, geographic rivalries are particular as a result of they’re uncommon in the playoffs. The Rangers and Islanders, for instance, haven’t met in the playoffs since 1994.

“I’d say this rivalry reminds me more of the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers,” stated Gord Stellick, who was an govt assistant with the Leafs in 1979 and later grew to become the membership’s common supervisor.

The Canadiens have received eight of the 15 collection and maintain a commanding 24-13 lead in Stanley Cup championships. But this 12 months, they’ll be an underdog No. four seed in opposition to Toronto, the champion of the all-Canadian North Division.

Pandemic travel restrictions in Canada compelled the N.H.L. to realign its 31 groups and type a division with all seven Canadian groups. Toronto went 7-2-1 in opposition to Montreal throughout the common season, seemingly inbuilt the picture of the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal — with velocity and ability led by Auston Matthews, the league’s prime aim scorer.

Although American cities are forward in easing restrictions and permitting followers inside hockey arenas — less than 5 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated — the buildings in Canada will largely stay darkish. The Canadiens introduced Tuesday that they’ll be allowed to admit 2,500 followers, about 12 p.c of the Bell Centre’s capability, for any video games after May 28 (Game 6 can be May 29, if vital). It can be the first game in Canada with followers in attendance this season.

Nevertheless, the ambiance will probably be muted for the two rabid fan bases, who had been accustomed to flooding the streets adorned with face paint, flags and jerseys earlier than the Leafs-Canadiens playoff video games.

“You walked into Maple Leaf Gardens or the Forum in Montreal hours before the game and fans were out on the street and ready to go,” Lanny McDonald, a Hall of Famer who began his profession with Toronto in 1973, stated in an interview. “That’s the magic of a rivalry, especially when it’s playoff hockey.”

Darryl Sittler, one in all the hottest gamers in Leafs historical past, added: “It’s a shame that in a series like this, fans in both cities can’t watch it live.”

The Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, who grew up in the Toronto space and received six Stanley Cups with Montreal in the 1970s, sees the rivalry as one in all cities and of cultures.

Montreal continues to be identified for its trend and delicacies, aptitude and intimate quaintness, whereas numerous Toronto is thought for its brashness, flashy skyline and financial clout. Both fan bases declare they reside in hockey’s mecca.

“Same fans, same degree of commitment, same kind of history, same love, same needs,” Dryden as soon as stated in a tv interview. “If you liked one place you would like the other. There’s nothing like winning in one of these environments.”

But a championship has lengthy eluded each franchises, since 1993 for Montreal. Toronto final received the Stanley Cup in 1967, when the underdog Leafs upset the Canadiens, taking the shine off Montreal’s rising international standing.

“Montreal had the World’s Fair, Expo 67, that year and they were going to have the Stanley Cup parade there,” Stellick stated. “They had the Montreal Expos. They had the Olympics in 1976. That was the place to be.”

The Canadiens-Leafs rivalry cooled after 1967 when the league expanded, including six groups, and in the early 1970s, Boston supplanted Toronto as Montreal’s greatest rival.

“Toronto was a big draw, but for us the big rivalry was Boston,” Serge Savard, the Hall of Fame former Canadiens defenseman, stated in an interview. “There were a lot of Boston fans in Montreal.”

Still, Toronto and Montreal had their battles in the 1970s, significantly in that final playoff assembly in 1979.

The Leafs had been good, however diminished by the meddling of workforce proprietor Harold Ballard, who fired and rehired head coach Roger Neilson in a three-day cleaning soap opera main up the postseason. “It was a pretty bizarre time,” Sittler stated in an interview. “My job was to play hockey and you didn’t need those distractions.”

In distinction, the Canadiens had received three consecutive titles, their final nice dynasty, having dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers in 1976 and the Bruins twice.

They had misplaced solely 29 regular-season video games in these three years, as the workforce was at what Scotty Bowman, the coach at the time, referred to as its “peak.”

“It was such an exciting time,” Bowman stated in a phone interview. “The pressure was there, but it spurred the players to play at their best.”

A Montreal workforce that includes future Hall of Famers like Dryden, Savard, Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt and Larry Robinson dispatched the Leafs in 4 video games for the second 12 months in a row on the approach to a fourth straight title.

But Toronto didn’t go down with out a struggle, taking the remaining two video games to time beyond regulation.

“The sad part was we thought we were close to the Canadiens,” McDonald stated. “We had beaten the Islanders the year before. And even though the Habs had beaten us in four straight the year before in 1978, you think you’re only a player or two away.”

He added: “It reminded me of the Rangers-Islanders rivalry or Calgary-Edmonton years later,” stated McDonald, who later performed for Calgary. “At that time it was probably the best rivalry in hockey, especially because Montreal had won so many Cups, and Toronto was second.”

Since that collection, Montreal received two extra Cups, in 1986 and 1993, whereas Toronto has the longest energetic drought in the N.H.L. at 53 years, only one in need of the hole the Rangers endured earlier than profitable all of it in 1994.

In Montreal, expectations have fallen precipitously for Les Habitants, who squeezed into the postseason.

“Back in 1979, people in Montreal would have been disappointed if we didn’t win,” Savard recalled. “In those days, they didn’t ask before the season if we were going to make the playoffs. They were asking if we were going to win the Cup this year. A very different time.”

The historical past of the Leafs and Canadiens nonetheless resonates with at present’s gamers.

Montreal goaltender Jake Allen, who performed junior hockey in Quebec, stated it’s “a special feeling” to play Toronto in the postseason. “We have to cherish it. We have to embrace it. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be hard.”

Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott advised reporters he’s wanting ahead to the fashionable renewal of an previous rivalry.

“It’s the Leafs versus the Habs, so it’s everything you want in a playoff series,” Dermott stated. “Even if you didn’t watch a game this season, the Leaf-Habs rivalry is always in the back of your mind. It’s going to be huge.”

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