The rivalry resumes Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Canadiens, but Montreal coach Michel Therrien is more interested in getting a win than in making any statements.
“Teams understand, especially at this time of year, that the two points are crucial,” Therrien said Friday. “So I’m expecting an intense game like they always are when they play us.”
It’s been a mostly one-sided affair this season, with the Leafs taking two of three meetings between the NHL’s two oldest clubs.
With the Olympics over, the resumption of the race for playoff positions puts added weight on the match-up of Atlantic Division rivals. The Canadiens (33-21-7) hold second place in the Eastern Conference, only two points ahead of Toronto (32-22-7), both with 21 games left to play.
The Canadiens came out flat in their first post-Olympic game but salvaged a point in a 2-1 overtime loss to Detroit on Wednesday. They beat the Penguins 6-5 in OT a night later in Pittsburgh.
The Leafs also struggled in their first outing after the Sochi Games, losing 5-4 in OT to the Islanders in New York on Thursday night.
“For us, it was better than the first night,” said Canadiens centre Daniel Briere. “It’s tough sometimes to get the mindset back to competing, fighting for loose pucks, after being off two or three weeks.”
The two teams skated at the same time at the Canadiens practice facility, which has two rinks. The Leafs gave U.S. Olympians Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk a day off for some extra post-Olympic rest, while only 11 Canadiens took part in an optional skate.
They did not include Canada’s gold-medalist goalie Carey Price, who has not played since tweaking a suspected groin injury on Wednesday morning.
Therrien said Price is a day-to-day case and he will be on the flight when the team leaves Sunday on a road trip to Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix and San Jose.
Peter Budaj, who let in two soft goals early in Pittsburgh, is to make a third straight start, playing a third game in four nights, with AHL call-up Dustin Tokarski backing up.
“I felt pretty good,” said Budaj. “The preparation off-ice helps. Even if you’re not playing you prepare as if you will. You get your sleep and your nutrition. I’ve got teammates who rely on me to work hard and I don’t want to let them down.”
Coach Randy Carlyle wouldn’t name his goalie, but the betting is that Jonathan Bernier will start a second straight game for Toronto, if only because he’ll be playing in his home province.
“I think I’ve shown historically that those things do come into consideration,” said Carlyle. “The last time we were in Winnipeg, James Reimer played. That’s his hometown.
“To say that solely is the determining factor, no. I’m not going to tell you anything about our goalies, so beat it.”
Montreal remains without physical winger Brandon Prust due to an upper body problem and fourth liner Ryan White is out with a flu. Checking winger Michael Bournival skated in a no-contact jersey, but isn’t ready to return from a concussion.
The Leafs are still awaiting the return of forward Dave Bolland from a foot injury.
“When he tells us he’s ready to play, we’ll put him in the lineup,” said Carlyle. “We saw lots of progress, then he hit a stumbling block a few days ago.
“It’s a severe injury to a vital part of his body. A tendon in his foot. When you put a skate on it, there’s a lot more going on.”
Bolland said the injury is coming along.
“Day-to-day, really — making sure the little things are corrected before I get back on the ice,” he said. “Just have to make sure all the fundamentals are right.
“Being good in the corners. Transition with the puck. You don’t want to be a liability out there. I want to be sure when I’m out there I’m going 100 per cent and ready to play.
Leafs-Canadiens games are always big for Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, a Toronto native, but last season’s Norris Trophy winner has been struggling. He has only six points and is minus-9 in his last 19 games.
In Pittsburgh, the rushing defenceman who played one game for Canada in Sochi was minus-2 and was benched late in the third period and in overtime after a giveaway at the Penguins blue-line led to a goal.
“I always believed that in any sport, it’s a game of errors,” said Therrien. “The team that makes the fewest errors has a better chance to win.
“I felt P.K. wasn’t on his game. It was tight. We decided to go with guys we felt were more likely to execute plays and make sure there were the fewest errors possible.”
He added he is confident that Subban will regain his form of last season and that he needs to “learn to make percentage plays. When he does that, he’s effective and helps the team. So he needs to concentrate.”