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Leafs, Canadiens set for emotional miniseries in meeting of North’s best
The King in the North debate certainly won’t disappear entirely in the wake of this hotly anticipated home-and-home series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens Wednesday and Saturday. That Canada’s two most historic hockey fan bases could see fireworks — and, perhaps, some clarity on who is the country’s best team — in […]

The King in the North debate certainly won’t disappear entirely in the wake of this hotly anticipated home-and-home series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens Wednesday and Saturday. That Canada’s two most historic hockey fan bases could see fireworks — and, perhaps, some clarity on who is the country’s best team — in these consecutive primetime, nationally televised tilts is reason enough to tune in. That, for the first time in a long time, the Buds and Habs are simultaneously relevant is the biggie. It would be dangerous to read too much into the only other time these two division title contenders crossed paths in 2021, on a giddy, delayed opening night devoid of any pre-season. There was rust to shake off, punches to throw, and new teammates to break in. We wish you were there to witness all of that pent-up hockey explode into a spirited if sloppy affair. January 13 offered one of those doozies that reminds you we’re in the entertainment business. The Canadiens looked the more organized and balanced outfit; the Maple Leafs snatched the extra point, by virtue of Morgan Rielly’s 5-4 overtime dagger. “We were the better team out there,” GTA-born Canadien Josh Anderson asserted post-game, more than once. Since that night, the deliberation over whether Kyle Dubas or Marc Bergevin has constructed the better squad has occupied our highly regionalized hockey discussions. A quarter of the way through this abbreviated 2021 campaign, a standings gulf is already forming between Leafs and Canadiens (and Jets) and the rest of the pack. Can anything be learned by comparing Toronto’s three-game demoralization of the Canucks to the Habs’ two-game demoralization of the Canucks? Steel sharpens steel. So, surely the players themselves would like to use this Montreal-Toronto set to measure how good they really are. Right? “You’re not going to like this answer, but I could really care less about what the Leafs are doing,” Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher said. “They're a very good team. They got their own storyline that they’re following. “For us, it’s just about playing our game. Obviously, we were disappointed we lost the first game to them. Now it’s a chance to get a little revenge in that aspect.” Toronto will roll into Bell Centre with two more wins and three more points, but Montreal holds a game in hand and a superior goal differential (+17). Will the real Jon Snow please stand up? Both sides have scored exactly 48 goals, yet both are the only teams to have dropped a game to the Ottawa Senators. One leads the league in power-play goals (Toronto, 15), the other in shorthanded strikes (Montreal, seven). One boasts the league’s best goal-scoring forward (Auston Matthews, 11), the other the best goal-scoring defenceman (Jeff Petry, six). The Canadiens fire more pucks (34.5 shots per game, tops in NHL), but the Leafs shoot more accurately (12.4 per cent). Both organizations believe you get what you pay for. Toronto invests a league-high $40.5 million of its cap in four game-breaking forwards, and they’re all producing. Montreal invests a league-high $14.85 million of cap space in its crease, and Carey Price and Jake Allen have delivered a division-best .914 save percentage. Yet both squads have leaned on their depth to succeed. Toronto has 23 players with at least a point and 14 with a goal. Montreal can dress 19 with a point and 16 with a goal. The Maple Leafs and Canadiens are the class of the Canadian division just as the old Atlantic Division is the class of the league. With defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay taking a stranglehold of the Central and defending Presidents’ Trophy champion Boston leading the East, Atlantic clubs now lead all three of the divisions to which they were scattered. How’s this? Five of the NHL’s top six teams, by points percentage, belonged to the Atlantic. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t faced off in playoff series since 1979, the year Joe Thornton was born. All it took was a worldwide pandemic and an unprecedented emergency realignment to pit them head-to-head 10 times (minimum) in meaningful games. “It’s going to be competitive and emotional,” Gallagher said of the ramped-up rivalry. “But if you don’t enjoy it, I guess you’re playing the wrong sport.”
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