For a pair of once regal NHL franchises, whose ermine robes are looking awfully ratty, it’s as close to a playoff meeting as they will get this season.
So close your eyes, forget 11th versus 15th, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are building Saturday night’s game like the Plains of Abraham.
The Habs are talking up their new-found toughness, manifested in a bizarre 5-4 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night. Brad Staubitz and Ryan White have added an edge to what used to be a small team, P.K. Subban is hitting with even more ferocity and everyone, including the Europeans, went charging to the defence of goaltender Carey Price. The Habs won it 5-4 after Minny’s Devin Setoguchi wiped out in front of Price, otherwise there would be two teams with matching six-game losing streaks facing off at the Bell Centre.
“We’re playing for a lot,” Subban insisted. “First of all, there’s a lot of pride and this is a home game. You have to understand what’s at stake. The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs in quite a while (going on seven years). For them, these games can be the difference down the stretch. It’s always nice to beat those guys and I’m sure it’s the same for them.”
Next door at the suburban practice rink, Ron (I’m Still The Coach) Wilson put his team through a loud, long and intense workout, based solely on patching up defensive coverage. Wilson, who usually lets his assistants do the yelling, climbed all over his team for slacking off with a 3-1 lead in Wednesday’s loss in Chicago. During drills designed to stop opponents from squeezing through, Wilson ordered them to “staple” each other to the boards and not hold back. The ensuing puck battles left many Leafs either puffing heavily or glaring at each other, ready to drop the gloves.
Which is a mentality their angry fans have waited too long to see in this season-killing slump.
“Hopefully, it carries over,” defenceman Mike Komisarek said.
“This was about communicating between the defence and forwards, pinning guys, having good sticks, good body position. When you go through a stretch like this, you’re surrounded by negativity and controversy. The biggest challenge is trying to take something positive away from each practice and I think we did that today.”
The Leafs fell another rung in the standings on Thursday night when Buffalo beat San Jose and they faced another long night of scoreboard-watching Friday and Saturday afternoon.
Wilson, who faces near-certain dismissal if the Leafs come up short next month for a fourth year under his watch, bravely assured a large media pack from both cities that he’s not buckling under the pressure.
“The talk around town, it doesn’t matter,” he insisted. “We have a job to rectify things and get points on the board. We can’t think about the past. We have 18 games to turn it around.”
Wilson’s team needs to win 13 to 15 of those games and avoid the dreaded three-pointers, but can expect a friendly reception Saturday, at least at the start. Somehow, Leafs fans again will stake a claim to vast sections of the Bell Centre.
“You get the true Leafs fans coming, so it’ll be pretty rowdy here,” laughed White. “We want to beat the Leafs for sure. Every time we play them, it’s a big game. It doesn’t matter which building you’re in.”
Count on some fireworks Saturday, as well. The Canadiens’ room, without an enforcer since Georges Laraque retired a few years ago, suddenly have a hit squad. It’s given the team a bit of identity in recent games.
“That’s something those guys believe in and it’s something we need,” said goalie Carey Price, who goes for his third win against the Leafs in the past few weeks.
“Those guys are warriors and they will stand up for anybody.”
Subban has too often had to be the catalyst.
“It gives you a lot of confidence that some guy is going to have your back,” he said. “I was really happy to see from the bench (Thursday) that when there was a scrum or our goalie got bumped, guys were right in there.
“You look at teams such as Boston and Philly, that’s what they do. They have five guys stepping up, it doesn’t matter if it’s Zdeno Chara or Nathan Horton, they have five guys.”
And both those teams are going to the playoffs.