The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens may have fallen on hard times recently, but that doesn't mean the teams hate each other any less.
The Habs and Leafs are set to resume one of the fiercest rivalries in professional sports when they Original Six clubs kick off their seasons Saturday evening at Montreal's Bell Centre.
Toronto and Montreal, finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Northeast Division, in 2011-12 and both clubs missed the playoffs. Montreal, which also finished last in the Eastern Conference, had its streak of playoff appearances halted at four while the Maple Leafs extended their franchise- record playoff drought to seven seasons.
The Maple Leafs were in playoff contention last February before finishing the season on a 7-18-4 slump. Although they waited until after the lockout to make a change, GM Brian Burke was relieved of his duties with the club earlier this month and was replaced by Dave Nonis, who takes over the unenviable task of getting the Leafs back on track.
However, before being sacrificed, Burke made a move for size and scoring over the summer, acquiring forward James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia in exchange for defenseman Luke Schenn. Van Riemsdyk, who was better known in Philly as "JVR," was selected by the Flyers with the second overall pick in the 2007 draft and the 23-year-old has showed glimpses of brilliance while posting 99 points (47 goals, 52 assists) over 196 career games.
JVR only had 11 goals and 13 assists in an injury-plagued 2011-12 for the Flyers, but the Leafs will be counting on a bounce-back season from the New Jersey native as he tries to provide secondary scoring for the team's top forwards, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
Lupul skated on the opposite wing from Kessel last season and turned in the best offensive season of his career. The 29-year-old Lupul had his highest point total with 67 points and his 25 goals were just three shy of the personal best he set with Anaheim in 2005-06. Even more impressive is the fact that Lupul did all that despite missing 16 games due to injury.
While van Riemsdyk could help improve the offense the Maple Leafs are still expected to have problems in goal. Since the Roberto Luongo trade rumors have yet to materialize, the club enters the season with the unproven tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens in the crease.
The Canadiens also enter this season with a new general manager as Marc Bergevin took over that role last spring from the fired Pierre Gauthier. Bergevin tabbed Michel Therrien as the team's new head coach and together the duo is tasked with regaining some of the respect the Habs lost last season.
Bergevin didn't make a splash in his first offseason as Montreal's GM and maybe that's a sign he'll be patient with a team that has question marks everywhere except in net, where Carey Price is entrenched as the team's No. 1 goaltender. The Habs did sign physical forwards Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust to add some much-needed toughness, but neither player will help much in improving an offense that averaged only 2.52 goals per game last season.
Noticeably absent from Saturday's contest will be Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban, who is locked in a contract dispute with the Habs. The 23-year-old led Montreal in ice time last season, but the restricted free agent has been unable to agree on a new deal with the team that drafted him 43rd overall in the 2007 draft.
The rabid fans in Montreal let their feelings on the contract dispute known earlier this week, chanting "We want P.K.!" at an intrasquad scrimmage. There's a good chance that chant will be brought out again Saturday at the Bell Centre.
While they won't have Subban on Saturday, Montreal hopes Tomas Plekanec is able to go in the opener. Plekanec, who had 52 points in 2011-12, was able to join the team for the first practice of training camp, but is questionable for Saturday's tilt.
Toronto and the Canadiens split six encounters in 2011-12 and the Leafs have won eight of the last 14 meetings in the series. Toronto has won five of the last eight contests staged in Montreal.