Leafs will see plenty of Canadiens

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

When it comes to ranking the Maple Leafs' hottest rivals, the Battle of Ontario takes precedence, followed by Philadelphia and New Jersey, the two teams that eliminated Toronto in four of the past five playoffs.

What about the Montreal Canadiens you ask? Well, the torch has been passed, as they like to say in the Habs' dressing room, with Ottawa making the best case.

Some lustre has been steadily fading from the National Hockey League's oldest feud, with Toronto dominating the season series with Montreal since 2000, as well as the Bell Centre box office, where a Leafs' love-in often mutes the home side. There has been no playoff meeting in more than 25 years.

But dig out your copy of The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, because the fire could be re-lit in the coming weeks. Starting with back-to-back exhibition games tonight at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs will play the re-tooling Habs six times up to Nov. 26.

The four regular-season meetings are the most Toronto has against one opponent in its first 24 games, while the clubs clash three times in March, including twice in three nights in Montreal.

In addition, the club's top minor-league teams, the Marlies and Hamilton Bulldogs, are a short distance apart.

PLAYOFF UPSET IN 2004

Needless to say, a new home-grown star such as current fave Guillaume Latendresse would be just the ticket for Montreal, but general manager Bob Gainey has been shoring up the club, since before its best regular season in a decade in 2003-04. That was capped by a playoff upset of the Boston Bruins.

Michael Ryder was their big find that season. He scored 34 goals and was the Calder Trophy runner-up, Montreal's first rookie to get that high since Chris Chelios in 1985.

The acquisition of Alexei Kovalev for the 2004 playoff run -- and his surprise re-signing for this year -- showed the bean-counters weren't running the show. Montreal, 2-0 in exhibition action, is beginning to see some results from Gainey and coach Claude Julien.

Heading home is Sherbrooke, Que., native Mathieu Dandenault, who won three Stanley Cups in Detroit during a decade with the Red Wings. He can play up or back and brings an excellent playoff resume. Montreal also hung in the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes the longest of any Canadian team. It paid off with their highest pick in more than 20 years, goaltender Carey Price, who is expected to split tonight's duties against the Leafs with Yann Danis.


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