With over 700 all-time meetings in the regular season and playoffs combined, the Habs and Maple Leafs are the league's oldest rivals. Last year the clubs split six encounters with each team posting a 2-1 record on home ice. Toronto has won five of eight overall in the series, but the Canadiens have taken four of the last seven matchups at Air Canada Centre.
This is the second straight year that the Leafs are hosting Montreal to start the season. Toronto notched a 3-2 victory in that game on Oct. 7, 2010. Montreal has started its season on the road in each of the last 11 campaigns.
The Canadiens were bounced out in the first round of the playoffs last spring, but it was their fourth straight trip to the postseason. The Leafs, meanwhile, have missed the last six playoffs, marking the longest postseason drought in team history.
Although the club made it to the Eastern Conference finals as an eighth seed in 2010, the Canadiens were sent packing in seven games by the Bruins in last spring's opening round. This year, head coach Jacques Martin has a decent mix of veterans and blossoming talent to work with and the addition of Erik Cole should help improve what was a lackluster offensive club last year.
The presence of young stars like defenseman P.K. Subban and goaltender Carey Price are also big reasons to be hopeful for the future.
Subban, 22, was named to the NHL's All Rookie team last year after recording 14 goals, 24 assists and 124 penalty minutes over 77 games. The sky is the limit for Subban, who has a rare blend of skill and toughness that cannot be undervalued. He will be counted on for an even better sophomore season, especially if veteran blueliner Andrei Markov is out of the lineup long. The oft-injured Markov will miss tonight's test and is considered out indefinitely with right knee inflammation.
The 24-year-old Price played in 72 games (70 starts) in 2010-11 and went 38-28-6 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He also recorded eight shutouts last season after recording just four white-washings in 128 NHL starts prior to 2010-11.
Meanwhile, Toronto hopes it can take the next step in its rebuilding project this year and make the postseason for the first time since 2004. Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke hopes young goaltender James Reimer can lead the way back to the playoffs.
The spotlight will be on Reimer this year, as fans and hockey pundits alike try to determine if the 23-year-old netminder is the club's savior or if his impressive 37-game stretch in 2010-11 was just a mirage. Reimer made his NHL debut on December 20 of last year and by the end of seasons he had compiled a 20-10-5 record to go with an excellent .921 save percentage and a 2.60 GAA.
Considering that the Maple Leafs finished 21st in the league in offense (2.60 goals per game) and 24th in defense (2.99 gpg), Reimer's ability to be a difference maker was a big reason the club even managed to finish 10th in the East last season.
Burke hopes Toronto improved on both ends of the ice this offseason and his strategy on offense has been to get better down the middle. The Maple Leafs signed centermen Tim Connolly and traded for Matthew Lombardi this summer to help fix the pivot problem. Connolly would likely be in the No. 1 center spot alongside top winger Phil Kessel tonight, but he will miss this evening's test with an upper-body injury.
Left wing prospect Nazem Kadri will miss the season opener with a knee injury that could sideline him for the first few weeks of the year. The 20-year-old Kadri, who was the seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft, posted just nine points (3g, 9a) in 29 games last year.
Price is 8-6-0 with a 2.45 GAA in 14 career games against Toronto. Reimer went 1-1 in two games against the Habs last year, surrendering eight total goals in those outings.