The greatest rivalry in Canadian sports was rekindled Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre as the Canadiens visited the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Toronto vs. Montreal games have a history that places them squarely at the centre of our country’s culture. Upper vs. Lower Canada, Canada’s Two Solitudes have integrated, cross-pollinated and battled for supremacy of our national game for generations. And while other franchises have enjoyed greater recent successes and players from each province no longer serve as each region’s representatives (with each team’s players now reflecting the globalization of Canada’s game), there are still few events more Canadian than a Saturday night Montreal-Toronto hockey game.
This writer and his younger son headed down the 401 from London to witness yet another battle between these long-time rivals. At a downtown Toronto sports restaurant a few blocks from the ACC, Habs and Leafs jerseys were ubiquitous and equally represented. Total strangers fist-bumped and high-fived one another throughout the restaurant acknowledging their common allegiance to hockey’s greatest franchise. After seeing my autographed Jean Beliveau sweater, one gentlemen tells me a story of how the great Canadiens captain gave him his signed stick in 1967 when he was only six years old. God bless Jean Beliveau.
After dinner, we arrived at the rink early to watch our Habs warmup. The ACC was largely empty, save and except a contingent of like-minded Canadien fans with the same idea as ourselves. The Canadiens’ lineup was depleted by injury this night and this was the last game for the Habs on a lengthy seven game road trip. Nonetheless, the team would be ready right out of the gate, eager to register their 13th consecutive win against a young and promising Leaf team that had defeated the New Jersey Devils the previous evening.
About 20 seconds into the game, Alexander Radulov set up Captain Max Pacioretty with game’s first goal. Less than three minutes later, Arturri Lekhonen fired a shot that was slowed by Frederik Andersen’s equipment and had sufficient momentum to roll past the goal line. With a 2-0 lead, the Canadiens, with a depleted line-up, had just the start they were looking for. Unfortunately, the Canadiens took a couple penalties later in the first and the potent Maple Leaf power play, lead by the playmaking of former London Knight Mitch Marner, allowed the home team to even up the score.
My family watched Marner in London for the last few years and he was certainly one of our favourite Knights. However, we now have nothing but contempt for him and his slick and sick playmaking ability. Partisan comments aside, Marner is an artist, a true genius with the puck. He set up Tyler Bozak for the first Toronto goal in what can only be described as a highlight reel no look pass that was brilliant in its simplicity and incredible for the vision it demonstrated. Marner also assisted on former London Knight Nazem Kadri’s tying goal.
Late in the first, the Canadiens regained a one-goal lead on a smooth move by Nikita Scherbak, his first NHL goal. This was Nikita’s first NHL game as well. This was no doubt a big moment for him and we congratulate him. Scherbak’s goal came with only one second left in the first period and really helped the Canadiens regain the momentum after relinquishing their two-goal lead earlier in the period. We fully anticipate that there will be many more big goals from the talented Russian in the years to come.
Early in the second, Alexander Radulov restored the Canadiens two-goal lead after receiving a nice feed from Shea Weber. Both Radulov and Weber played strong games for the Canadiens. Radulov had a goal and an assist. Weber had two assists, four blocks and logged even more ice time than usual in the absence of Andrei Markov and Greg Pateryn on the back end.
For much of the second period, the Habs retained their two-goal lead, due to some absolutely incredible saves by Carey Price. However, Marner resurfaced later in the second with a great individual effort in the Canadiens zone where he stickhandled around defenders and ultimately made a beautiful pass to James van Riemsdyk who merely had to tap the puck into the open corner. After period two, the Canadiens held a 4-3 lead.
Early in the third period, Michael McCarron shot the puck from a sharp angle and Andersen mishandled it. The Habs two-goal lead was restored. Although the Maple Leafs had many scoring chances in the third period, Price thwarted every effort the Leafs made to draw closer.
The difference this evening was once again in goal. Carey Price was simply superior to Andersen, who started for the second consecutive night. However, it was a nice effort by the Canadiens. They concluded a successful seven-game road trip on a high note, where they went 4-1-2, picking up 10 of a possible 14 points. When one considers the revolving door to the Canadiens infirmary, Hab fans should be very pleased with the team’s efforts on the road trip.
Since this writer lives in London, there are few opportunities to see the Habs live. It is always exciting and this game was my younger son’s first time to see the Canadiens live. The ACC included many Habs fans and we celebrated with our like-minded compatriots after every Canadiens goal. After the game, one fan gave my son his Canadiens scarf. I did not even get a chance to thank him. So thank you. It was a special night for myself and my son.