Leafs-Habs playoff series would rock

Brandon Prust and Mark Fraser will make sure a Habs-Leafs playoff game has some punch. Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

TORONTO -- Has it really been 34 years?

Mercy, where has the time gone since that iconic Cam Connor double-OT goal in 1979?

Not a single player on the current Toronto Maple Leafs roster was even born yet when Canada's two Original Six franchises last met in a playoff series, in April 1979.

Which explains why nary a Leaf nor a Canadiens player I spoke with Friday could answer the question, when did the Leafs and Canadiens last face each other in the playoffs?

"Was it in '93, when the Canadiens last won the Cup?" guessed Leafs winger James Van Riemsdyk.

Nope, but close, because the Leafs were one series win away from facing the Habs in those Cup finals. No, it was explained to JVR, you have to go back to 1979.

"Ah, I bet my dad would know that, he's a big hockey historian and he used to love the Canadiens growing up," said the native of Middletown, N.J.

Montreal's four-game, second-round sweep of the Leafs in 1979 en route to a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup -- yup, those were the days -- is the last tangible playoff proof of hockey's greatest historical rivalry.

Today, that so-called rivalry perhaps exists more in the minds of the two largest NHL media corps covering each team as opposed to the teams themselves, which meet again Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre.

You need playoff games to regenerate a true rivalry, to refuel a genuine dislike.

For that reason, Leafs fans under the age of 40 consider Ottawa their greatest nemesis because of those four playoff series against the Senators from 1999 through 2004.

Montreal? Most Habs fans detest the Bruins the most, the two clubs maintaining and regenerating their long-standing rivalry with fresh playoff series over the past decade.

"That's how rivalries are born," agreed Canadiens veteran defenseman Josh Gorges. "There's a real good rivalry between us and Boston, but I think given the history between Montreal and Toronto, it would be a hell of a series."

The Habs-Leafs rivalry, though, needs a new storyline. It needs fresh blood. A first-round playoff series on "Hockey Night In Canada" would provide that and more.

"That's the truth, playoffs create animosity," said Leafs defenseman Ryan O'Byrne, who began his career with the Habs. "But the players in both dressing rooms know the history [of] this rivalry. Sure, both teams haven't played each other in the playoffs in 34 years, but I'm sure if both teams play each other in these playoffs, that hatred would build real quickly."

One wonders if that series wouldn't generate bigger TV numbers in Canada than the Stanley Cup finals itself. Probably.

But will we get that Habs-Leafs playoff series? On Friday morning, the 4-5 matchup in the East was Boston-Toronto, the Bruins' loss Thursday night to the Islanders coupled with Montreal's victory at Buffalo flipping the Habs back in first place by a point in the Northeast over the B's in a dance that no doubt will continue until the final weekend of the regular season in two weeks.

"It would be an exciting matchup for us and for the fans," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said of Habs-Leafs. "But our focus right now is one winning the division. That's a high priority."

No question a chance at the No. 2 seed in the East matters more to the Habs than rekindling history with the Leafs.
But if Montreal and Toronto do meet, it would be a fascinating matchup of two clubs with very similar attributes.

To wit:

• Both teams have had new coaches overhaul the culture, stressing work ethic and accountability on and off the ice. And, no surprise, both Michel Therrien of the Canadiens and Randy Carlyle of the Maple Leafs are in the Jack Adams Award discussion.

• Montreal and Toronto are ranked Nos. 4-5 in goals per game, the Habs at 3.10 and the Leafs at 3.08. And it should be no surprise they're so close, as both clubs are built the same, with three second lines as opposed to a true No. 1 line or a true No. 3 line. Both clubs have balanced scoring because of it, a top 9 up front instead of a top 6 like most clubs.

"I think that's the key for both teams having success this year is the depth; when you have that kind of balanced scoring, it becomes tough to match against," Van Riemsdyk said, agreeing with the comparison of both teams' top 9 forwards. "Because who do you put your top-D pair or top checking line against? Pick your poison."

• Where the comparisons end, perhaps, and why Montreal has done a bit better this season than Toronto is in goal, where Carey Price outshines James Reimer, although the latter has exceeded most people's expectations this season. Still, Montreal is sixth in goals against per game (2.32) compared to Toronto's 18th (2.68), not only reflective of Montreal's superior netminding but also of a deeper blue-line corps. Dion Phaneuf has had a very good season for the Leafs -- perhaps isn't getting enough credit for it either -- but with Norris Trophy contender P.K. Subban (leading all NHL blue-liners in points) and veteran star Andrei Markov doing his thing again in a healthy return, Montreal has the edge on defense.

• And while both clubs are considered surprises for what they've accomplished this season after missing the postseason last year, there's a vast difference in playoff experience. Before missing last season, Montreal had made the playoffs four straight seasons, including a trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. The Leafs? They haven't played a playoff game in nine years, not since May 2004.

Having said all that, when the Leafs and Habs play each other, at least for their regular-season tilts over the last decade, it never seems to matter where they are in the standings or which team is having a better year. The results are unpredictable, the games are entertaining and everything seems to stop in the NHL's two most historical markets for those three hours.

Would it be too much to ask for a seven-game series between the two teams in three weeks' time?

"First and foremost, we have to worry about getting there," said Van Riemsdyk, whose Leafs haven't yet clinched a playoff spot. "But if we were to play each other in the first round, I think it would be pretty incredible. Canada would be pretty fired up about it, so it would be good."

"The fans would be going crazy on both sides," added Montreal's Gorges. "It would be a fun series for sure."

For the sake of the game, make it happen, hockey gods. It has been far too long.