Even in the dead of winter, a game between the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens brings more heat and energy to any arena. And as the teams geared up to square off Saturday at Air Canada Centre, the rink was charged with anticipation of a showdown between two franchises that are both desperate for points.
“It’s always the best feeling to play the Habs on a Saturday night,” said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri.
“As a player, you love to be a part of these games,” added Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf. “It’s a very historic rivalry that’s been around for a long time, and us as players, we like playing in this atmosphere, we like playing in this rivalry, and I’m sure if you ask them, they’d say the same thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s in our building or their building, when these two teams play, there seems to be that little bit more energy coming from the crowd and in the building. You can feel it. So as a player you enjoy these nights.”
The Canadiens enter the contest on a five-game losing streak and three points behind the final wild card team in the Eastern Conference, a far cry from the dominance they displayed early in the season. There’s no doubt much of their struggles can be attributed to the absence of injured star goaltender Carey Price, and although Price won’t be in the lineup Saturday, Toronto can’t afford to take the Habs lightly.
“We don’t have to prepare for Carey today, so that’s a great thing,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “He’s a real goalie, he's as good as they come. I’m hoping for the game that he gets back healthy and gets back playing. I’m not that disappointed he’s not playing tonight, to be honest with you, but you’d like him to be healthy and playing. He’s a real goaltender. Now, in saying that, the kid playing net for them has played real well and played real hard and given them an opportunity. That’s all you can ask.”
“They’ve obviously had to adjust with losing their goalie,” Phaneuf said. “It’s no different than any other team when a goalie goes down, especially the starting guy: it affects your team. So I think they’re seeing some of the effects of that, but it’s the National Hockey League. That stuff happens. He’s a great goalie, he’s a big part of their team, but we expect a tough game tonight. There’s no easy games in this league, and we expect a solid performance from their team whether they’ve got their goalie or not.”
“It is surprising,” added Kadri, in regard to Montreal’s stunning fall down the standings. “It’s kind of like a tale of two teams, so to speak. But we’re still going to give them the benefit of the doubt. They’re still a good team, and we know what they’re capable of if everyone plays the way they can. So we’re going to prepare like we would in the past and walk away with two points.”
One particular focus for the Leafs remains getting off to a stronger start to games, and although Toronto has taken three of a possible four points in their past two contests, there’s still not enough urgency to their attack early on in the opening period. That’s something that needs to change as quickly as possible.
“The one thing that we really have to focus on is getting off to a better start,” Phaneuf said. “We’ve found a way to fight back, claw back into games, but you can see early on, we’re getting outshot, and the momentum of games, we’re receiving the game too much. So we’ve got to come out and focus on having a good start and getting going on time.”
In net for the Leafs for the third consecutive game is veteran James Reimer, who has arguably been the team’s most consistently great player since returning from injury earlier this month. The 27-year-old’s numbers – including a 1.98 goals-against average and .937 save percentage – are as good as any NHL netminder’s, and his teammates recognize how much he’s meant to the franchise this season.
“Reims has been real good for us all year,” Phaneuf said. “He’s been very consistent, he’s made some key stops in key times of the game. When it comes to goaltending, those are big momentum shifts in games.”