Suddenly both contenders, Habs and Leafs renew rivalry
One of the oldest rivalries in the NHL has became a little better with the surprising performance of the Montreal Canadiens.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs (33-17-3, 69 points) visit Montreal (31-18-6, 68 points) on Saturday to resume the Original Six rivalry, their hold on second place in the Atlantic Division will be at stake because the upstart Canadiens are only one point behind in third. Montreal has played two more games than Toronto.
The Maple Leafs were expected to be contenders this season, but the Canadiens -- once one of league's great dynasties -- were not.
A 5-2 victory Thursday night over the Winnipeg Jets provided further evidence that the Habs are for real.
There was a playoff atmosphere at the Bell Centre.
"I think they knew it was a playoff-type game and they were ready and we were, too," said Canadiens center Phillip Danault, who had a goal and three assists Thursday. "So it was a great atmosphere."
The Canadiens outshot the Jets 53-34 and are on an 8-1-1 surge.
"This is the first year (since he took over the team in 2015) we look like, both teams look like real hockey clubs," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said during a conference call Friday.
It is a throwback to earlier times. The Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967, when they defeated the Canadiens in the final.
The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 3-2 in overtime in Toronto Oct. 3 in their season opener.
The Canadiens' confidence received a boost against the Jets, who are considered strong Stanley Cup contenders.
"We know how good this (Jets) team is; it's a team that's going to be right in the thick of things, competes for the Stanley Cup at the end of the year," said Montreal right winger Brendan Gallagher, who had two assists Thursday. "That was probably one of our more complete games of the year, and we got rewarded with a good result."
"We knew it wasn't going to be an easy challenge, and we know that Saturday's not going to be easy, either," said defenseman Shea Weber, who had a goal and an assist Thursday.
Left winger Jonathan Drouin led Montreal with two goals and two assists on Thursday. The line of Drouin, Gallagher and Danault combined for 10 points.
Drouin has three goals and six assists in his past three games and 17 goals and 29 assists for the season.
"He's a special player, he's a special talent," Gallagher said. "There's not a lot of players in the world with the ability that he has."
Drouin's line will merit attention from the Maple Leafs, and so will 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who scored a goal in his fourth straight game Thursday, giving him 10 goals and 17 assists this year. All of his goals have been at the Bell Centre.
Canadiens right winger Andrew Shaw, who has been out since Dec. 31 with a neck injury, could return Saturday.
The Maple Leafs are coming off a see-saw 5-4 home win over the struggling Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.
"The bottom line is I thought we were really ready to play, I thought we started and I thought we were playing well," Babcock said. "Then we just got careless and we never really seemed to be able to get it back."
One of the goal scorers for the Maple Leafs was Andreas Johnsson, who has three goals in the past two games and 13 for the season.
Defenseman Morgan Rielly ultimately scored the winner for Toronto, tallying his 14th of the season in the third period. He ranks third on the team with 53 points this season.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 8, 2019