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Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry has new faces, same intensity

Toronto wins latest matchup, illustrates seismic changes in style, personnel

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Don Cherry considers the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, Canada's century-old, cornerstone NHL teams, and offers this thought-provoking point of view.

"It used to be the Canadiens had the forwards to do all the scoring but now it's the other way around," said Cherry, the charismatic star of the Coach's Corner segment on "Hockey Night in Canada." 

"The Leafs used to be the sloggers, playing rough hockey. Now they're playing like the old Canadiens. They toss the puck around and they have all these young guys. The forwards are fantastic. It's the exact opposite of what it used to be. Toronto is playing run-and-gun and, let's face it, Montreal is having a tough time scoring."

The Canadiens finally found a way to hit the back of the net with a little regularity on Saturday. Their season-high three goals were a step in the right direction even if the visiting Maple Leafs scored four, winning 4-3 in overtime on Auston Matthews' second of the game.

Video: TOR@MTL: Matthews goes short side for OT game-winner

That gave Montreal (1-3-1) seven goals in regulation in five games, not quite in the league of the 24 scored by the Maple Leafs (4-1-0) in their five games.

More than one Canadiens fan will argue that, north of the border, Cherry is a Toronto cheerleader who bleeds Maple Leafs blue; in the U.S., of course, the former Boston Bruins coach drips black and gold. But any objective fan would be hard-pressed to dispute Cherry's take on this recent seismic shift in what was the NHL's first true rivalry.

(And believe it or not, Cherry says that after Bruins superstar Bobby Orr, Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur was his favorite player to watch.)

It will be months before we can reasonably contemplate these Atlantic Division teams meeting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The next time they play in the postseason will be the first since 1979 and only their 16th since 1918 (Montreal leads 8-7). Next spring will be 51 years since the Maple Leafs' last championship and 25 years since the Canadiens' most recent title, also the last won by a Canada-based team.

Montreal has won the Stanley Cup 10 times since Toronto's last championship in 1967. A once-ferocious rivalry largely evaporated with the teams' vastly changing fortunes and League realignment that made geographical near-neighbors practically strangers. But it's building a terrific head of steam again, and just the idea of a meeting in the postseason dampens palms and quickens the pulse.

Imagine the million volts that energized Bell Centre on Saturday during a thoroughly entertaining game -- and dial it up until your wrist is sore.

"I don't know what it could mean for the country, but I know it would mean an awful lot to 'Hockey Night in Canada,'" Cherry said on Friday with a laugh. Such a series would be a certain network ratings bonanza. 

Of course, a Canadiens-Maple Leafs playoff series could never be what it was in the NHL's Original Six era, when teams played each other 14 times in the regular season and developed a genuine hatred for one another with feuds boiling over many seasons with few roster changes.

But even in a country that now has seven NHL teams and allegiances dispersed, a Montreal-Toronto series would be compelling, a magnificent powder keg of four or more games.

Probably no one would enjoy it more than Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who loves the city where he earned his 1987 physical-education degree at McGill University, the history of hockey generally and a rivalry in which he's now smack dab in the middle. On the eve of the game Saturday, Babcock detoured to his alma mater to perform the ceremonial face-off for a game between McGill and cross-town rival Concordia.

On his way to earning induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986, Maple Leafs center Dave Keon participated in five playoff series against the Canadiens, in consecutive years; Semifinal victories in 1963 and 1964, losses in 1965 and 1966, and a Stanley Cup Final victory in 1967. He had 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 28 career postseason games against Montreal.

From his home in Florida on Friday, Keon remembered a venomous rivalry that took root before many players even made it to the NHL.

"A lot of us had played against their guys in junior," Keon said of the Maple Leafs of his era. "It was a rivalry that started there and it just magnified itself with the pros. When I first started playing (in 1960-61), the Canadiens had just won five Stanley Cups in a row. They were the benchmark everybody was trying to beat. It was pretty intense, billed [as] French against English. The Canadiens represented Quebec, and we represented Ontario and English Canada. There were a lot of things going on."

Off the ice, Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach and his Canadiens counterpart, Toe Blake, were forever sniping at each other, exchanging taunts and insults, pouring gasoline on a fire that needed no help.

"It was a sideshow," Keon said of the coaches. "I don't know that we (players) paid particular attention to it, but there was always something happening. And it happened 14 times a season. There was always something stirring between the two of them."

Canadiens icon Yvan Cournoyer, a 1982 Hall of Fame inductee and a spectator Saturday for the 737th game between his team and the Maple Leafs, faced Keon in 1965, 1966 and 1967 in his first three playoff series against Toronto. He also was part of Montreal's four-game sweep of the Maple Leafs in the 1978 Semifinals, scoring 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in his total of 19 games.

And this tells you all you need to know about the Canadiens-Leafs rivalry: Despite winning 10 Stanley Cup championships during a span of 16 seasons, Cournoyer says the defining moment in his NHL career was not a victory, but rather losing the 1967 title to Toronto, leaving him with a sour taste that he never wanted to experience again.

His name would be engraved on the Cup seven times in the following 10 seasons. And in the 1978 Semifinals, the next time the Canadiens and Maple Leafs would meet in the postseason after Toronto's upset win in Canada's centennial year, Montreal breezed to victory in a four-game sweep.

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