Saturday, January 18, 2014
Please give us Habs-Leafs in the playoffs
By Pierre LeBrun
TORONTO -- Dear hockey gods, please arrange for these two teams to play in the playoffs.
Pretty please, pretty, pretty, pretty please.
A usually dormant Air Canada Centre was alive Saturday night like it rarely is, even the rich corporate dudes in suits putting down their sushi plates in the first few rows and showing emotion as the Toronto Maple Leafs held off the rival Montreal Canadiens 5-3 in a thrilling Original Six affair.
Not since 1979 have Canada's two iconic franchises met in the postseason and Saturday night reminded you once again what a loss that is for the sport in general.
Baseball gets to have Yankees-Red Sox all the time but we can't get Habs-Leafs when it matters.
"It was close last year," said Habs winger Brendan Gallagher, who drove the Leafs nuts with his usual pesky play, drawing two penalties. "It almost happened last year. You could see the last month fans in both cities were really looking forward to it. It would be pretty crazy, and I'm sure it'll happen soon enough."
For that to happen, Tampa Bay would somehow have to falter down the stretch to allow Toronto back into a 2-3 matchup in the Atlantic Division with the Canadiens and, frankly, Jon Cooper's men have shown zero evidence of wanting to do that.
Normally clubs need a playoff series to fuel a true emotional rivalry; for example, the way Ottawa and Montreal have finally developed a true hate for each other after last spring's playoff encounter.
But somehow, Toronto-Montreal has remained relevant without the playoff fuel and Saturday was another great example, Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk tugging at his jersey logo after scoring the winner at 14:27 of the third period, meant as a mocking gesture toward Habs star blueliner P.K. Subban, whose logo tug rubbed the Senators the wrong way Thursday night in Ottawa.
"We weren't too thrilled about their first goal," said van Riemsdyk. "The player who scored came by the bench and was chirping at our bench. I don't know if they want to play that game; we'll play it, too."
The Montreal player in question is Subban, TV cameras catching him celebrate near the Leafs bench after the Habs' opening goal. Hey, I've got no problem with that. Subban is an emotional player who doesn't hide it. God knows hockey players are so darn boring most of the time, we need more guys like Subban, not fewer.
But the Leafs were not impressed, so van Reimsdyk waited until his third-period goal to return the in-your-face favor. Again, no issue with that either.
"I'm usually not one to engage in stuff like that, but I was a little bit fired up," said van Riemsdyk. "I don’t know. It just kind of happened."
Subban, by the way, declined media interviews after the game.
"There was a lot of chirping, guys trying to hit each other, it’s always a pretty intense game when we play them," said Leafs center Tyler Bozak.
Oh my, how delicious would it be for these two teams to hook up for real.
"It's a fun game to play in," added Bozak, whose all-world pass set up van Riemsdyk's winner. "The crowd is into it a lot more than other games. I think a playoff series would be incredible between both teams."
For the Leafs, it was an important win in some ways, cutting Montreal's lead in the standings to four points while extending Toronto's winning streak to four games. Keeping Montreal in reach was a goal for the Leafs before this game.
"That was a statement game for this team," said Leafs center Nazem Kadri, who danced around Alexei Emelin in the first period to set up Cody Franson's opening goal.
After a six- to seven-week period in which the Leafs looked for the most part horrid, allowing a pile of Eastern Conference teams to catch up to them in the standings, Toronto has seemingly stemmed the tide with the four-game win streak.
Mind you, I have to tell you, the Leafs still don't look like a team that has a clue about how to protect a lead and play solid defensive hockey.
Which is also a concern right now for the Canadiens, who for the most part this season have been a very solid, smart defensive team but over the past three weeks or so have loosened up and left Olympic netminder Carey Price to fend for himself. He had no chance on any of Toronto's goals, missed assignments and bonehead plays, allowing the Leafs the kind of high-end scoring chances that drive coaches crazy.
"We had some breakdowns, it's pretty simple," said Habs head coach Michel Therrien. "Usually we're more solid there. There are three goals we gave them, they were not even supposed to be scoring chances. We're going to have to pay attention to that."
What a game, though. Let's hope it's the appetizer before the real thing finally.