NHL Monday

Leafs-Habs’ 401 rivalry rising

The Globe and Mail

Toronto Maple Leafs Nikolai Kulemin (L) and Montreal Canadiens David Desharnais chase the puck into the corner in the second period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto April 13, 2013. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

The possibility of a first-round playoff match between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens has been tantalizing the fans in both cities for more than a week now.

A lot of this has to do with the oldest rivalry in the NHL but more of the excitement springs from the belief the Canadiens would be an easier matchup for the Leafs than the other likely opponent, the Boston Bruins. After Saturday night’s 5-1 laugher at the Air Canada Centre, which saw Canadiens goaltender Carey Price chased after giving up three goals on the first four Leafs shots and backup Peter Budaj let in the first shot he faced, the Leafs have a 3-1 record against the Habs this season.

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It is a much different tale with the Bruins, as it has been for the last several years. The Leafs finished their regular-season series against Boston at 1-2-1. In their last 37 regular-season games, the Bruins hold a 26-6-5 edge on the Maple Leafs and it seems like the Leafs have never won a game against them since the infamous Phil Kessel trade in 2009.

There certainly is not much appetite among the Canadiens to discuss why the Leafs give them such trouble.

“No reason,” said Montreal head coach Michel Therrien.

“No, I don’t know,” said Canadiens captain Brian Gionta. “[But] we’ve got to find an answer for it.”

The reason can be found in the youthful Leafs’ acceptance of the defensive system preached by head coach Randy Carlyle. He doesn’t mind shots on goal, as long as they come from the periphery. The mantra is to protect the area in front of goaltender James Reimer at all costs and clear every rebound. Second and third scoring chances are verboten.

When the Leafs are playing to the plan, the Canadiens cannot cycle the puck around the boards in the Toronto zone and they have to resort to long shots from the outside. This, by the way, is how the Bruins routinely smother the Leafs in their encounters, which also feature towering defenceman Zdeno Chara shutting down Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, although the emergence of Nazem Kadri made their last two encounters much closer, with the Leafs taking three of a possible four points.

“When we’re skating, when we’re moving, we’re forcing turnovers and fighting other teams’ [defences] down low,” Gionta said. “We weren’t able to establish that [against the Leafs]. We had a lot of outside shots. You have to penetrate that net front and have to get second and third shots on that.”

Gionta said the biggest difference between this season’s Canadiens, which have bobbed around the top of the Eastern Conference all season, and the team that finished 28th overall in the NHL in 2011-12, is its ability to bounce back from bad games. The Leafs have also shown much improvement in that area as well.

As for the rivalry angle, even though the players showed by their combativeness on Saturday there is a strong sense of dislike between the teams, Therrien brushed it aside. It is the Bruins who are the Canadiens’ big rivals, he said, because the last time the Habs met the Leafs in the Stanley Cup playoffs was way back in 1979 when the Leafs were swept on the way to the Canadiens’ fourth consecutive championship. None of the Leafs’ players were even born then.

“So why is there a rivalry with the Bruins and us?” Therrien said. “Because we play those guys so often in the playoffs.”

Left unsaid was the fact the Leafs haven’t been in the playoffs in the last eight years to have even a chance of playing the Canadiens.

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