The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, hockey's two oldest franchises, have won a combined 37 Stanley Cups. With the way the Canadiens have played lately, they appear to be a contender for what would be their NHL-best 25th trophy.
|It's always a rough-and-tumble matchup when the Maple Leafs and Canadiens get together. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)
Given their play since the new year, the same certainly can't be said about the Maple Leafs.
Montreal looks for its sixth win in eight games on Thursday when it concludes a four-game homestand against Toronto, which is coming off its worst loss since 2005.
The Canadiens (29-16-9) have been steadily rising in the Northeast Division since late December, and have closed within one point of Ottawa, which had clearly established itself as the Eastern Conference's premier team over the season's first two months.
But by beating the Senators 4-3 on Tuesday, Montreal sent a message that Ottawa is in for a fight if it wants to win maintain control of not only the division, but the conference.
"We all know nobody trusted us before the season," said center Tomas Plekanec, who had two goals and an assist. "We were supposed to be in 13th or 12th place right now, and we are where we are and we know what we can do, but we're not going to get overconfident, that's for sure."
Plekanec has 19 goals - one shy of his career high - and is the Canadiens' second-leading scorer behind Alexei Kovalev.
Kovalev had only 18 goals in 73 games last season, leading many to believe the 34-year-old's days as a premier scorer were through. But he has 24 goals and 28 assists thus far, including two goals and four assists in his past three games.
|Alexei Kovalev (27) and Tomas Plekanec (14) provide the firepower behind Montreal's resurgence. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
After missing the playoffs last spring, Kovalev is focused on the big picture.
"It's still 35 points to make the playoffs," he said. "That's the way I look at it, so we have to keep working."
Kovalev has tormented the Maple Leafs recently - he has four goals and three assists in the teams' past three meetings, all Montreal wins. Toronto won the first two games between the clubs in the season's first month, and Kovalev was limited to one assist.
The Leafs (21-25-9) snapped a three-game losing streak on Saturday with an impressive 4-2 win against Ottawa, but followed that by equaling their worst loss in more than three years, an 8-0 thrashing administered by Florida on Tuesday.
Florida scored three power-play goals to chase goaltender Vesa Toskala as the Leafs fell to 5-9-1 since Jan. 3.
"We can't roll over like that in any game," said center Matt Stajan. "It's embarrassing to lose like that on home ice. We know that in this room."
Toronto is giving up an average of 3.27 goals - only Tampa Bay and Los Angeles yield more goals per game. It's been even worse for the Leafs in their last 15 games, getting outscored 53-33 in that stretch.
One of the team's top offensive options will be missing his third straight game on Thursday. Nik Antropov, whose 18 goals are second behind Mats Sundin's 22, will serve the final game of his league-imposed suspension for hurling a stick at an official following an overtime loss to Carolina on Jan. 31.
Sundin, who has been one of the most prominent names discussed as the league's Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches, has been held pointless in four of his last five games.
He has six goals and 10 assists in his last 13 games against Montreal.