Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Thursday, February 28, 2013
Need to know: Habs, Leafs are the real deal

By Scott Burnside


As we approach the halfway point of this shrunken NHL season, one of the interesting storylines has been the renaissance of two Original Six rivals whose recent history has been anything but historic. But there they were Wednesday night, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, meeting for the third time this season, not just renewing an ages-old rivalry but reinforcing that maybe both teams have turned a corner and that these meetings are more about the here and now than dusty record books of the past.

The Habs avenged two earlier losses -- one a 6-0 shellacking at the Bell Centre -- by clipping the Leafs 5-2 on Wednesday. The Habs are 7-0-2 since that loss, and their 29 points are best in the Eastern Conference. Now, the standings are a bit skewed given that Boston, the second-place team in the Northwest Division, has played four fewer games and is just three points back of Montreal, but the results are the results, and coach Michel Therrien has done a masterful job in his return to the Canadiens’ bench, getting production from up and down his lineup.

On Wednesday, defensive prospect Alexei Emelin got his first goal of the season, impressive rookie Brendan Gallagher picked up his sixth goal and Max Pacioretty collected two. The Canadiens' plus-15 goal differential is tied with Pittsburgh for tops in the Eastern Conference.

The Leafs, meanwhile, have continued to scratch and claw their way to points in spite of the absence of netminder James Reimer and top winger Joffrey Lupul, among others. As of Thursday morning, the Leafs were in seventh place in the conference, tied in points with sixth-place New Jersey with 24. Their eight road wins were as many as any team in the league. Most importantly, under coach Randy Carlyle, the Leafs have thus far avoided the kind of soul-sucking slides that have contributed to a playoff drought that extends beyond the last lockout. The Leafs have not lost more than two games in a row, and if they can continue that trend of quickly righting the ship, then perhaps the team’s first playoff berth since 2003-04 -- the last time both the Leafs and Canadiens were involved in the playoffs at the same time -- isn’t the pipe dream most believed it would be when the season began.

And while we’re blue-skying it, is it beyond the realm of possibility that the two teams might actually meet in a playoff clash for the first time since 1979? Now that’s something to consider.