The NHL’s New North Division Will Re-Ignite the Canadiens-Maple Leafs Rivalry

It’s no secret that the rivalry between the Montréal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs has sputtered over the past few decades or so. What used to be the National Hockey League’s must-see matchup has simply become another game on the schedule.

The game that used to consume Canada’s collective Saturday nights has been reduced to nothing more than a moment invoking nostalgia for the hockey days of old. The Maple Leafs have become preoccupied with the Ottawa Senators, and the Canadiens have had the Boston Bruins in their sights for a while now. This is going to change this year because of the league’s COVID-19 realignment.

Rivals Replaced

Historically, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs have been the league’s fiercest rivals. At its origins, the Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry represented the cultural divide between French and English Canada and was the source of many famous moments, including the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup win in 1967. In that time, the Canadiens’ most hated rival has become the Bruins, whom they’ve battled atop the division for many years. Habs fans still despise Zdeno Chara for his hit on Max Pacioretty, even though neither player plays for their respective team anymore.

In contrast, the Maple Leafs chief rival is the Ottawa Senators, a team against whom they played many famous playoff series in (relatively) recent years and against whom many memorable moments have transpired. (from ‘Top Ten Moments in the Leafs/Sens Rivalry, Toronto Observer, 10/08/2010) Remember Darcy Tucker versus Chris Neil? Or when Daniel Alfredsson mocked Mats Sundin by pretending to throw his stick into the crowd?

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Auston Matthews scores four goals on his NHL debut in October 2017.

Realignment Rivalries Renewed

The NHL’s COVID-19 protocol for the 2020-21 season means that teams will only play divisional games throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With a 56-game schedule already announced, this means that each team will play everyone else in their division at least nine times and up to 10.

This means that instead of the traditional four games per season between rivals, we’ll be getting 10 Battles of Alberta, 10 Battles of Ontario, and 10 installments of Habs-Buds. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and this is the most familiar with each other the Canadiens and Maple Leafs have been in a long while.

Dave KeonToronto Maple Leafs Ken Dryden Montreal Canadiens
Dave Keon, of the Toronto Maple Leafs, skates for the puck against Ken Dryden, of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI/via Getty Images)

Not since the days of the Original Six have the Leafs and Canadiens played each other this much, and we all know how many of those games ended.

The Playoff Picture

I’ve always said what truly makes an NHL rivalry (or a rivalry in any sport, for that matter) is games in the playoffs. Heck, one of the biggest reasons for the deep-seeded hatred between fans is playoff history. The Bruins and Canadiens have played each other in the playoffs more times than any other two teams in league history. The two have played a total of 177 playoff games against each other, no doubt a driving force behind one of the league’s best rivalries.

Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen Montreal Canadiens Andrew Shaw
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen stops former Montreal Canadiens right wing Andrew Shaw (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

That’s also one of the things that’s killed the Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry over the past few decades — a lack of playoff matchups. While the Habs were (and still are) a relative lock to make the postseason most years, the Maple Leafs languished in relative obscurity until their recent resurgence and emergence as one of the league’s best teams. Based on the Canadiens’ offseason additions, I think it’s safe to say that both teams are a lock for the playoffs this year. It’s only a matter of where they finish, so we’ll know when we can circle our calendars.

One of the fiercest rivalries in the National Hockey League has gone quiet as of late, but the new format should re-ignite the historic rivalry and turn it into one of the league’s best again. If the Leafs’ 5-4 overtime opening night victory is any indication, we’re all in for a treat. Two goals apiece from Montréal’s Josh Anderson and Toronto’s William Nylander and a decent fight between Ben Chiarot and Wayne Simmonds.

Let’s get going!

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