When these old enemies meet for a nationally televised game on a Saturday night, their respective fans usually rise to the occasion, but at this point why bother.
Most other evenings where the Toronto Maple Leafs emerge from the visitors’ tunnel at the Bell Centre for the pregame warmup, there are large enough swaths of blue-and-white clad fans to rival the hometown catcalls with their cheers; sometimes even gaining the upper hand.
This time, the booing went largely uncontested. Even those were lukewarm by contemporary standards; there’s been plenty to jeer about the home team, no need to waste perfectly good anger on the opposition.
If the Habs/Leafs rivalry continues to exist, it is primarily as a concept, not a point of civic differentiation or expression of competitive fury.
The teams have played each other only once in the postseason since they met for the Stanley Cup in 1967 (speaking of which, there were no discernible chants of “six-ty-se-ven” on Saturday, which is weird and notable in itself as Montreal fans are nothing if not historically minded in their taunting).
Also, these clubs are pretty terrible at the moment, and in the past couple of seasons it’s become guaranteed-win night for Montreal – after coasting to a 4-1 win, their third in four games, the Habs have now won 10 straight against Toronto.
In a sense, Saturday’s matchup was a tree-falling-in-the-forest game: when historic rivals meet in February with nothing on the line and both staring into the abyss of a playoff-less season, does anybody care?
As it turns out, yes. But the evidence suggests probably not all that deeply.
Before the game, scalpers reported doing less-than-brisk business, one cracked that it was like the season suddenly ended.
Though the Bell Centre is still sold out every night, tickets haven’t been hard to come by since the Habs started sliding down the mountainside in December.
This weekend’s tilt was an “optimum” game – premium prices to watch bargain-bin teams.
So, yes, there were empty seats.
Among some Leafs fans, unconditional passion has apparently been replaced with self-deprecation.
Early in the first period on Saturday, one sang out “Let’s go Marlies!”
It was on point: Of the 40 players involved when the AHL Toronto Marlies played the Montreal-affiliated St. John’s Icecaps last Nov. 13, fully 10 were on hand at the Bell Centre.
A third of the players in uniform this weekend have more games in the AHL than the NHL this year.
One of them, Leafs rookie Brendan Leipsic, had the decency to set up the game’s opening goal.
It livened what had been a pointedly listless and disorganized opening. And lo, did the energy begin to flow.
The Habs quickly replied, then took the lead and built on it, Toronto centre Nazem Kadri and Montreal defenceman Greg Pateryn waged a testy, running battle.
Midway through the third came the first “Olé, olé, olé” chant in what feels like months. With two minutes to play, there was even – miracle of miracles – a chorus of the ditty that surely grates on Leaf nerves like nothing else: “Na-na-na, hey-hey, goodbye.”
There have been more convincing renditions, but given this season and the way the evening began – as flat as the tires on the Habs’ playoff bandwagon – it counts as progress.
Toronto winger Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, a former Hab who left early because of muscle spasms, said “it felt the same as it always does, great atmosphere.” As one of the players expecting to be dealt on Monday’s trade deadline, he had no incentive to be diplomatic.
A few feet away in a deserted Leafs dressing room, the 21-year-old Leipsic said, “it’s amazing. Hockey Night in Canada, Saturday night, it doesn’t get any better than that. I was just trying to soak it in.”
On the Habs’ side, 23-year-old Phillip Danault – acquired via trade from Chicago late Friday – revelled in playing for his childhood team.
“Incredible,” the Victoriaville, Que., native said. “It was a great feeling I won’t ever forget.”
The magic evidently endures, at least for the players.
But if the lustre is to return to the rivalry, the clubs will need to step up the pace on their refurbishment plans – updating some furniture in Montreal’s case, a full-on renovation in Toronto’s.
Of the three, soon to be four, times over the past half-century both clubs have missed the playoffs in the same season, all but one has come in the past decade.
The NHL did its bit by reuniting the clubs in the same division a few years back. Now what they need is a playoff matchup.
Maybe then the unbridled passion and the ferocity of old will return to Saturday night.
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly stated that the Leafs and Canadiens had not played each other in the postseason since they met for the Stanley Cup in 1967; however, they had played once. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error