The colourful cast of characters was all there.
Brandon Prust. Ryan White.
Colton Orr. Frazer McLaren. Mark Fraser.
Between them, there were a ridiculous 47 fighting majors among the five bodies in one spot, part of the starting lineups for the season finale between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada.
This was supposed to tee up the bad blood leading into the playoffs, too, with all the talk of history, recent and otherwise, culminating in some ugliness on the ice, just as there had been in their previous four meetings this season.
Only when the puck dropped, the gloves never did – and the two sides stuck to playing hockey the rest of the way.
With one team doing so much, much better than the other.
On the eve of a return to the playoffs after terrible seasons for both clubs a year ago, the Canadiens embarrassed the Leafs in their home rink on Saturday night, beating them 4-1 in a game that was close only in its very early stages.
For a Habs team that started the year on fire – with an incredible 25-8-5 record before wilting in their last nine games (3-6-0) as No. 1 netminder Carey Price struggled with his confidence – this was a dominant return to their earlier form, as they played keep away over the final 40 minutes in outshooting Toronto 28-17 and 11-1 in a particularly lopsided second period.
The fisticuffs, meanwhile, never materialized, with McLaren tossed early in the third when he went looking for trouble the only blemish on the scoresheet.
“We obviously didn’t play our game,” Leafs centre Jay McClement said. “They capitalized on their chances and just got away from the things that make us successful.”
“You’ve got to give the opposition credit – they outworked us,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle added. “They played the game to a higher level than we did.”
After Leafs winger Phil Kessel opened the scoring with a bullet on the power play late in the first, the game was pretty much all downhill from there for Toronto.
The Canadiens quickly replied for the tying marker, with Lars Eller scoring two and a half minutes after Kessel’s goal by deftly tapping in his eighth of the season for one of his three points on the night.
Then came the ugly middle frame, where defenceman Andrei Markov and Brendan Gallagher scored two weird ones when the Leafs defence and netminders James Reimer were caught napping.
Montreal gifted Toronto several chances to get back in the game, giving them seven power plays in all, but the Leafs managed just one shot on three man advantages in the second period and looked lost with the puck on more than one occasion.
Tomas Plekanec ended the scoring – and Reimer’s night – to open the third, belting a shot that wasn’t screened or tipped high over the Leafs goaltender.
“It obviously wasn’t my best game,” Reimer said. “A couple unlucky bounces… The last game of the year we obviously wanted to win and solidify our spot and that didn’t happen tonight.”
“I don’t think he was as sharp as he’s been, that’s for sure,” Carlyle said. “He’s been outstanding for our hockey club so it’s hard to cast anything in that direction. I don’t think we supported him.”
Montreal’s win puts a highly anticipated potential Habs-Leafs first round series in jeopardy, as they took over the Northeast Division lead and will now only fall into fourth in the East if the Boston Bruins win on Sunday.
Toronto is now locked into fifth spot, as after the Ottawa Senators lost 2-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers on the out of town scoreboard, meaning the Leafs will face whichever of the Canadiens or Bruins fails to win the division.
“I probably will watch it,” Carlyle said of Sunday night's Bruins-Sens game. “It has an impact on what we’re going to do.”
Either way, they have hardly inspired confidence they can beat either team the past two weeks, with Boston dominating the Leafs the past several seasons and Montreal potentially now out of their mini-funk just in time for the games that matter.
“We’ll be ready to go wherever,” McClement said, acknowledging the Leafs will start on the road, likely as soon as Tuesday night. “It’ll be the first time that we’ll all admit to scoreboard watching, but I think we need to figure out our own game, no matter who we’re playing. Because if we play like that tonight, it won’t be good enough.”