Habs, Leafs kick off NHL season in Toronto

(SportsNetwork.com) - The 2014-15 NHL campaign kicks off with the league's oldest rivalry, as the Toronto Maple Leafs open the season by welcoming the Montreal Canadiens for Wednesday's clash at Air Canada Centre.

The NHL regular season gets underway Wednesday with a four-game slate, beginning with another edition of the league's signature rivalry. The historic foes met five times in 2013-14 with the Canadiens claiming three of the battles.

In addition to winning the last regular-season series against Toronto, the Canadiens also made it to the Eastern Conference finals last spring while the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons.

Being the most decorated franchise in NHL history, the Canadiens once deemed a season to be successful only if it ended with a Stanley Cup title. But times have changed thanks to the onset of the salary cap era, so last season's surprising run to the conference finals made 2013-14 an unqualified success for the Habs.

Montreal swept Tampa Bay in the opening round before pulling off a seven-game upset of the Boston Bruins in the East semis. The party ended, however, when the New York Rangers downed the Habs in six games to win the conference title.

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin didn't fiddle with his roster too much this summer, with his biggest move coming in the trade which sent Danny Briere to Colorado in exchange for fellow forward P.A. Parenteau, who is questionable for Wednesday's game with a lower-body injury.

Bergevin pulled off another minor move right before the start of the season, acquiring bulky forward Eric Tangradi from Winnipeg on Sunday in exchange for goaltender Peter Budaj and Patrick Holland. Tangradi will begin the season with Montreal's AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Montreal ended last season without Carey Price, but the club's No. 1 goaltender is ready to go for 2014-15 and expects to get the start tonight. Price went down with a knee injury in the conference finals and was sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs.

The Habs' core that is still relatively young, as a handful of its best players -- P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, to name a few -- enter this season at 25 years old or younger. It will be interesting to see if last spring's excursion to the conference finals was a sign Montreal is on the right track, or merely an illusion.

"It's fun to see the guys loose and excited for the start of the season, but there are 29 other teams that are also anxious to start the season," Subban said on Tuesday. "It's a fresh start. It's an opportunity to see progress and have success."

While Montreal hopes to prove last season was no fluke, Toronto certainly is aiming for a fresh start after ending 2013-14 with losses in 12 of its final 14 games. The late-season swoon cost the Maple Leafs a shot at the playoffs, and front office upheaval followed the disappointing campaign.

Shortly after the season ended, the Leafs named Brendan Shanahan as the team's president and alternate governor. The Hall of Fame winger left behind a job as the NHL's director of player safety to try and help his hometown team get back on the right track.

While the Leafs haven't made major changes to the look of the team since Shanahan's arrival in April, the club did hire 28-year-old advanced statistics wunderkind Kyle Dubas to serve as Toronto's assistant general manager, a move that could signal the beginning of the end for current GM Dave Nonis. Head coach Randy Carlyle also could be on borrowed time.

With Toronto bringing back most of its roster from last season, the 2014-15 campaign could be one of evaluation for the Leafs as the franchise tries to transition out of its recent downturn. Of course, the Eastern Conference seems wide open at the start of the season, so making the playoffs in 2015 should be within the club's reach.

High-scoring winger Phil Kessel returns for the Leafs after leading the club in both goals and points for the fifth straight season in 2013-14, notching 37 tallies and 80 points.

While Toronto doesn't need to worry about Kessel's production, the club absolutely needs forward David Clarkson to perform at a higher level this season. Clarkson, a 30-goal scorer with New Jersey in 2011-12, signed a seven- year, $36.75 million deal with the Leafs in the summer of 2013 only to put up an embarrassing 11 points (5G, 6A) in 60 games.

Clarkson's nightmare season began with him serving a suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight in a preseason game. Although Clarkson broke an orbital bone below his right eye following a fight with Buffalo's Cody McCormick during this year's preseason, he could be ready to go for tonight's season opener.

"Last year was just something I can't explain to you," Clarkson recently told his club's official web site. "It was the toughest thing and I'm ready for what's ahead."

Toronto forward David Booth, who was signed to a one-year, $1.1 million deal in the offseason, will not be able to make his Maple Leafs debut tonight due to a fractured foot suffered in the preseason. The injury could keep Booth sidelined until late October. Defenseman Cody Franson also will miss the season opener with a bruised left knee.

The Maple Leafs expect to go with Jonathan Bernier over James Reimer in net tonight. Bernier enters 2014-15 as the clear top option in Toronto after going 26-19-7 with a 2.69 goals against average and .923 save percentage. Reimer, meanwhile, is in need of a comeback season following a campaign in which he posted a 12-16-1 record and sported a dismal 3.29 GAA.

Bernier, who was acquired from Los Angeles in a trade during the summer of 2013, outplayed Reimer for the starting job early on in 2013-14 before suffering a knee injury in mid-March. Reimer and the Leafs lost the next five games and when Bernier returned on March 25, the club dropped three more in a row.

Montreal has won four of six and five of the past eight encounters in the series overall and the Canadiens have taken five of the last seven meetings in Toronto.

The Leafs were much better at home than on the road last season, sporting a 24-16-1 record at Air Canada Centre in 2013-14. Montreal had a solid 23-15-3 road record last season.

Following tonight's season opener, Toronto is off until hosting Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Habs, meanwhile, are scheduled to play the second test of a season-opening four-game road trip tomorrow night in Washington.