For the third year in a row, Montreal will open their NHL season against their bitter rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Habs have many rivalries with several teams, including the Boston Bruins, but no rivalry has as much passion as the tiff between Toronto and Montreal.
This season’s opener has even more bite as both the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs believe they have a great chance of making the playoffs. Taking divisional rivals and Stanley Cup champions Boston out of the equation – both teams have improved over the summer and will fancy their chances at capturing the Northeast Division.
Montreal have not made dramatic changes over the summer. However, the capture of Erik Cole from Carolina and the last-minute addition of Blair Betts from Philadelphia adds missing crunch to a physically weak team.
Scott Gomez will be feeling the pressure. Last season’s lackluster seven goals and 31 assists was simply not good enough for a player of his experience and ability. However, Gomez has looked fairly refreshing in pre-season, scoring three goals in four games. Mike Cammalleri also looks to have put last year’s injury-plagued season behind him – looking sharp in front of goal.
Max Pacioretty returns to competitive action for the first time since suffering a spinal injury in March. Pacioretty has also looked sharp in pre-season for the Habs, despite his teams looking fairly mediocre until beating Tampa Bay 5-1 in their last game. It will be interesting to see how the 22-year-old reacts to the physical element of competitive hockey.
The Maple Leafs will have to open their season without Clarke MacArthur who was suspended for two games after a head-shot on Detroit Red Wings player Justin Abdelkader. Tim Connolly was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres during the summer. However, the experienced centre is likely to miss tonight’s opener with an upper body injury. With MacArthur and Connolly missing tonight’s game, it could be a big test for the makeshift Leafs.
Working in Toronto’s favor is the belief that Montreal don’t have the tightest defense. It is still unknown when Andrei Markov will return. Chris Campoli, who was subjected to a controversial late hit by Ryan Malone in pre-season is doubtful. PK Subban, Hal Gill and Josh Gorges will be key for Montreal tonight, and a shaky start could give the Leafs enough confidence to go on and win the game.
The Leafs edged the Habs in the opening game last season, but have had a mixed pre-season. It is likely to be a stern affair when the puck drops at the Air Canada Centre tonight. One thing is for sure, the NHL is back – and with a bang.