We’re inching closer to the NHL regular season as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster beings to take shape. We’ll know more about the makeup of the team shortly as we get closer to the Oct. 2 season opener, but let’s take our focus off the roster and onto the opponent.
In a season that is expected to include a wealth of entertainment value, it can be hard to select just a handful of games that quality as “must-see.” That said, here are five that we should at least be marking on our calendar, clearing our schedules and tuning in for throughout the 2019-20 season.
Oct. 5 vs. Montreal Canadiens
Boston Bruins fans might have something to say about this, but the Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens rivalry is arguably the best rivalry in the NHL. Furthermore, these games seem to hit another level when they are played on a Saturday — this one takes place on the first weekend of the regular season in Toronto.
Like most mouth-watering rivalries in professional sports, this one already has some fuel on the fire after Canadiens forward Max Domi declared the Canadiens fans on a whole other level than that of the Maple Leafs. While he later clarified his comments after the media hotbeds in Toronto and Montreal ran with the quotes, it appears he intentionally added some bulletin board material leading up to the Oct. 5 matchup. As a result, it would be of little surprise to see Domi hear some boo birds in this one.
Canadiens fans haven’t had much to cheer about in this rivalry of late, however. While Montreal took last season’s finale by a 6-5 count against a watered-down Maple Leafs lineup with a playoff spot locked in, the Maple Leafs are still 7-1-0 over their last eight contests against the Canadiens. There isn’t anything quite like a Saturday night contest between these two clubs, so be sure to tune in for the season series opener on the NHL’s opening weekend.
Oct. 19 vs. Boston Bruins
The Bruins have some long-standing bragging rights over the Maple Leafs thanks to ending three of Toronto’s last four playoff appearances with first-round Game 7 victories. That won’t keep the Maple Leafs’ faithful away from this tantalizing season series opener on another Saturday night in Toronto.
Perhaps the Maple Leafs can finally move on from their heart-wrenching Game 7 loss in the 2013 playoffs after blowing a 4-1 lead late in the third period. With Jake Gardiner signing with the Carolina Hurricanes this summer, there are now zero current Maple Leafs players remaining from that loss. Hey, if you are a Maple Leafs fan looking for any sort of silver lining in postseason losses to the Bruins, there you go.
There was plenty of animosity throughout last season’s playoff series, and while it ended quietly on the Maple Leafs’ behalf with a 5-1 Game 7 loss in Boston, there’s little doubt there’s an extra chip on their collective shoulders for this matchup on home ice against another long-time rival.
Nov. 29 @ Buffalo Sabres
There are Maple Leafs fans across North America. The club’s fan base is well represented on mostly all occasions throughout the road schedule, but you won’t find more Maple Leafs fans at a road game than you will in Buffalo.
On most occasions, the Maple Leafs vs. Sabres crowds in Buffalo is a roughly 50/50 split between the two fan bases. Maple Leafs fans flock from Ontario to Western New York via the Niagara Falls/Buffalo border, but an added wrinkle to this one is the fact it takes place the afternoon following U.S. Thanksgiving at 4 PM Eastern Time. With hockey-mad Ontarians butting heads with holiday-spending Americans, you can bet your bottom dollar that KeyBank Center in Buffalo will be absolutely rocking for this one.
If you don’t believe me, check out the Maple Leafs’ faithful as Auston Matthews ended a game in overtime at Buffalo last season.
There’s also an old-school aspect to this rivalry. Despite a certain former Maple Leafs agitator now residing in Denver, Rasmus Ristolainen’s trajectory towards public enemy No. 1 with Leafs Nation continues. Ristolainen started this season’s festivities early with a questionable hit on Tyson Barrie in their first preseason contest, something that drew the ire of fellow Finn Kasperi Kapanen.
Later in the game, Maple Leafs defenseman Kevin Gravel initiated a wrestling match with Sabres forward Sam Reinhart in obvious retaliation for the Ristolainen hit. Needless to say, the rivalry is off to an entertaining start. Given the recent history and early-season dust ups, this season series opener in Buffalo has the potential to be the most entertaining game of the club’s season. For good measure, they meet the very next night in Toronto. You might want to just book that weekend off all together.
Dec. 4 vs. Colorado Avalanche
Just five days after the aforementioned contest in Buffalo, the Maple Leafs welcome home the player who they can thank for renewing those hostilities in the form of Nazem Kadri.
Kadri’s tenure with the Maple Leafs was as uncertain as ever after getting suspended for the second consecutive postseason with a dangerous cross check to the head of the Bruins’ Jake DeBrusk last spring. Although Kyle Dubas stated that the trade with the Avalanche had nothing to do with Kadri’s suspension history but rather the need to include a prime-of-career asset, his fate was nonetheless sealed on July 1 when he was sent to Colorado in exchange for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot.
Regardless on your personal opinion on the lightning rod that is Kadri, there’s no argument to be made that he didn’t put it all on the line every night he pulled on a Maple Leafs jersey. There’s something to be said for the effort it takes to get under the opponent’s skin on a nightly basis while playing all 200 feet of the ice as a center. That’s not to mention his 161 goals and 357 points across 561 games with the franchise.
Oh, and the Avalanche are expected to be very good and every bit a Stanley Cup contender as the Maple Leafs. According to BetOnline, the two teams sport two of the top five odds to win the Cup. Armed with youth and speed to burn, the Avalanche are going to be one of the more entertaining teams to watch across the league this season, period. Add in the Kadri effect and this game is most certainly one that we absolutely must tune in for this season.
Dec. 14 @ Edmonton Oilers
I’m sorry, but Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid is absolutely must-see TV and will be for roughly the next 15 years, if not more.
The two teams meet again just a few weeks later in Toronto, but that tilt takes place on a Monday in January. Something tells me that a Saturday night in Edmonton in mid-December should represent the better atmosphere of the two. While we expect the Maple Leafs to be competitive, it would help if the Oilers were at least in a playoff spot at the time of this duel between two superstar players that are largely the face of the league with Matthews literally being the face of the league’s video game.
In seven career games against the Maple Leafs, McDavid has tallied 4 goals and 11 points. Five of those points came in his rookie season back on Feb. 11, 2016, against a Maple Leafs team that would go on to finish 30th overall — something that allowed them to draft Matthews just over four months later.
In five career outings against the Oilers, Matthews has tallied two goals and four points. His one goal, one assist effort on Nov. 30, 2017, against McDavid’s Oilers represents his best performance in this matchup to date.
There’s no rhyme or reason as to why all five of these games take place prior to the calendar flipping to 2020. Most Maple Leafs games against the Canadiens, Bruins and Sabres are going to be quality hockey games. More must-see games will appear as the standings and happenings throughout the season dictate. There’s also no disrespect to the Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings — two teams expected to finish in the league’s basement — as those rivalry games usually find a way to deliver entertainment value, as well.
However, as it stands right now, these are the five games from the 2019-20 Maple Leafs schedule that I have circled on my calendar as must-see TV. How about you? Drop a reply and let’s get a conversation going!