The oldest rivalry in the NHL re-ignites on Sunday as the Toronto Maple Leafs make the short trip to Bell Centre to face-off against the Montreal Canadiens.
Going into the clash the pair find themselves at opposite ends of the Atlantic Division with Montreal at the bottom (19-24-3) and Toronto (28-11-7) flying high in second.
The positions aren’t particularly surprising with the Canadiens part way through a full rebuild and the Maple Leafs expecting to compete for the Stanley Cup.
|What||Toronto Maple Leafs @ Montreal Canadiens|
|Where||Bell Centre, Montreal|
|When||19:00, Saturday January 21st 2023|
|How to watch||NHL.com/CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS|
|Odds||Toronto Maple Leafs -300, Montreal Canadiens +240|
Toronto’s last Stanley Cup victory came 55-years ago when their Final opponents were the Canadiens who were hoping to be crowned champions for a third time in a row.
All in all, the Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup a record 24 times since 1915 with their most recent success coming in 1992. The Leafs have won it 13 times and are +850 to end their NHL record drought this season.
The Canadiens made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020/21 before they plummeted last season to bottom of the league standings with a 22-49-11 record.
While it wasn’t all bad, they won the draft lottery to select Juraj Slafkovsky first overall, it prompted major changes in the organization.
Long-time General Manager Marc Bergevin was replaced by Kent Hughes and Dominique Ducharme was switched on the bench for rookie coach Martin St Louis.
Experienced players like Ben Chiarot and Jeff Petry were traded as Hughes, a former player agent, made his intentions to rebuild clear.
Focussing on the development of youth, the Canadiens' point percentage has increased slightly from last season going from .335 to .446 but, perhaps most importantly, the likes of 23-year-old Nick Suzuki (16 goals, 21 assists in 46 games) and 22-year-old Cole Caufield (26 goals, 10 assists) have thrived under St Louis.
The 21-year-old defenseman Arber Xhekaj has also burst onto the NHL scene and, after amassing a league-leading 92 penalty minutes, which includes eight fighting majors, has become a cult hero in Montreal already.
With a far more experienced squad full of superstars, Toronto will not expect to lose to their big rivals.
But that’s exactly what happened in the first meeting of the two this season when the Canadiens won 4-3 at Bell Centre in mid-October.
Caulfield was the difference-maker scoring twice and the game-winner came with 19 seconds of the game remaining.
The Leafs will be hoping their in-form core of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares won’t allow for defeat to happen again.
The quartet have all scored more points than any other Montreal player with Marner on 55 (17 goals, 38 assists), Matthews 51 (24 goals, 27 assists), Nylander 51 (24 goals, 27 assists) and Tavares on 45 (20 goals, 25 assists). The Canadiens' leader is Suzuki with 37.
Generally, the Leafs' offense should win out averaging 3.39 goals per game this season which is eighth in the league compared to the Canadiens' 2.57 which is 29th.
Caulfield is the top scorer of all the players in the two teams, though, and has proven he can provide the offense for Montreal to beat anyone on any given night.
Toronto have conceded considerably less goals too, allowing an average of 2.63 goals per game (third) to Montreal’s 3.67 (28th).
The task in hand has been made harder for the Canadiens with their main hope for the future Slafkovsky ruled out for three months with a lower-body injury.
The 18-year-old has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 39 games this season after being introduced straight into the NHL.
The 6'3" Slovakian was a surprise pick by the Canadiens who were long projected to select Canadian centre Shane Wright who ended up dropping to fourth and to the Seattle Kraken.
His injury has come at a bad time with forwards Jake Evans, Joel Armia and Jonathan Drouin set to miss at least a couple of weeks each and Sean Monahan on long-term injured reserve.
Goalie Jake Allen is also currently injured with the last six games being started by Sam Montembeault who has a .909 save percentage and 3.21 goals against average (GAA) in 19 games this season (9-8-2).
At the other end, Matt Murray (11-5-2) or Ilya Samsonov (14-4-1) could be given the nod by coach Sheldon Keefe with the pair generally sharing duties over the season so far.
Murray has a .911 save percentage and 2.73 GAA while Samsonov, who started Toronto's most recent 4-1 win against Winnipeg Jets, is at .920 and 2.18 respectively.
Interestingly Samsonov has gone 12-0-1 with a .938 save percentage at home and Murray 7-4-1 with a .929 save percentage on the road with Keefe admitting "it's definitely a thing".
Given that, Murray is the more likely starter in Montreal, but what Keefe will be seeking is one or the other to demand the number one role as they head towards the all-important playoffs.