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

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

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 separated by language, culture and politics. But hockey has always brought them together, except during the playoffs.

The Canadiens and Maple Leafs have played 15 NHL playoffs since 1918 and five times in the Stanley Cup finals, but not since 1979.

They finally found themselves Thursday in the first round of the playoffs in Toronto. The Canadiens won the game 2-1, a muted affair that was marred by a collision that saw Leafs captain John Tavares climb off the ice on a stretcher and be rushed to hospital. He is away indefinitely with a concussion. Game 2 is Saturday night.

It’s a classic rivalry, but one that has been dormant, at least in the playoffs, only to be retained by those of a certain vintage.

Of course, geographic rivalries are special because they are rare in the playoffs. The Rangers and Islanders, for example, haven’t met in the playoffs since 1994.

“I would say this rivalry reminds me more of the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers,” said Gord Stellick, who served as executive assistant for the Leafs in 1979 and later became the club’s general manager.

The Canadians have won eight of 15 series and hold a 24-13 lead at the Stanley Cup Championship. But this year, they will be a No. 4 underdog against Toronto, the all-Canadian North Division champion.

Pandemic travel restrictions in Canada have forced the NHL to realign its 31 teams and form a division with the seven Canadian teams. Toronto went 7-2-1 against Montreal in the regular season, apparently built in the image of the Montreal Flying Frenchmen – with speed and skill spearheaded by league top scorer Auston Matthews.

Although U.S. cities are ahead of the curve in easing restrictions and allowing fans inside hockey arenas – less than 5 percent of Canadians are fully vaccinated – buildings in Canada will remain largely dark. The Canadiens announced Tuesday that they would be allowed to admit 2,500 fans, or about 12% of the capacity of the Bell Center, for any game after May 28 (Game 6 would take place on May 29, if necessary). It would be the first game in Canada with fans present this season.

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Still, the atmosphere will be muted for the two rabid fanbases, who used to flood the streets decked out in makeup, flags and jerseys before the Leafs-Canadiens playoff games.

“You walked into Maple Leaf Gardens or the Forum in Montreal a few hours before the game and the fans were out on the streets and ready to go,” said Lanny McDonald, Hall of Fame member who started his career with Toronto in 1973, during an interview. “It’s the magic of a rivalry, especially when it comes to playoff hockey.

Darryl Sittler, one of the most popular players in Leafs history, added: “It’s a shame that in a show like this fans in both cities can’t watch it live.

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

Montreal is still known for its fashion and cuisine, intimate flair and originality, while Toronto’s diversity is known for its daring, flashy skyline and economic weight. Both fan bases claim to live in the hockey mecca.

“Same fans, same level of commitment, same kind of story, same love, same needs,” Dryden said in a TV interview. “If you loved one place, you would love the other. There is nothing quite like winning in one of these environments.

But a championship has long eluded the two franchises, since 1993 for Montreal. Toronto last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, when the underdog Leafs upset the Canadiens, shining the shine of Montreal’s growing world status.

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

The Canadiens-Leafs rivalry calmed down after 1967, when the league grew, adding six teams, and in the early 1970s, Boston supplanted Toronto as Montreal’s biggest rival.

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

Yet Toronto and Montreal had their battles in the 1970s, especially in that last playoff meeting in 1979.

The Leafs were good, but diminished by interference from team owner Harold Ballard, who fired and rehired head coach Roger Neilson in a three-day soap opera before the playoffs. “It was a pretty weird time,” Sittler said in an interview. “My job was to play hockey and you didn’t need those distractions.

In contrast, the Canadians had won three straight titles, their last great dynasty, having eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers in 1976 and the Bruins twice.

They had lost just 29 regular season games in those three years, as the team was in what then coach Scotty Bowman called their “prime.”

“It was such an exciting time,” Bowman said in a telephone interview. “The pressure was there, but it made the players play their best. “

A Montreal team made up of future Hall of Fame members like Dryden, Savard, Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt and Larry Robinson sent the Leafs in four games for a second consecutive year on their way to a fourth consecutive title .

But Toronto didn’t bow without a fight, bringing the last two games into overtime.

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

He added, “It reminded me of the Rangers-Islanders or Calgary-Edmonton rivalry years later,” said McDonald, who later played for Calgary. “Back then it was probably the best rivalry in hockey, especially because Montreal had won so many cups and Toronto was second. “

Since that series, Montreal has won two more Cups, in 1986 and 1993, while Toronto has the longest active drought in the NHL at 53, just one short of the gap the Rangers suffered before winning it all in. 1994.

In Montreal, expectations fell precipitously for Les Habitants, who slipped into the playoffs.

“In 1979, Montrealers would have been disappointed if we hadn’t won,” recalls Savard. “At that time, they weren’t asking until the season if we were going to make the playoffs. They were asking us if we were going to win the Cup this year. A very different time.

The history of the Leafs and the Canadiens still resonates with players today.

Montreal goaltender Jake Allen, who played junior hockey in Quebec, said it was “a special feeling” to play against Toronto in the playoffs. “We have to cherish it. We have to embrace it. It’s gonna be fun. It’s going to be hard. “

Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott told reporters he looks forward to the modern revival of an old rivalry.

“It’s the Leafs against the Habs, so that’s all you want in a playoff series,” Dermott said. “Even if you haven’t watched a game this season, the Leaf-Habs rivalry is still on your mind. It’s going to be huge. “

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