TORONTO — The wait is almost over.
It’s been more than 42 years since Canadiens great Larry Robinson scored in overtime to eliminate the Maple Leafs from the second round of the 1979 playoffs.
Now, this country’s Original Six franchises are primed — finally, in the NHL’s pandemic-truncated campaign — to meet again in the post-season.
“It’s very symbolic in terms of the history,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, who was born 17 months after that Toronto-Montreal series ended. “But it’s been a really long time.”
Canadiens counterpart Dominique Ducharme was six years old when the teams last suited up with this much on the line.
“I don’t quite remember that series,” said the interim rookie bench boss. “Really never lived a Montreal and Toronto playoff.”
The face of the Leafs since being drafted first overall in 2016, star centre and Arizona product Auston Matthews said he’d probably try a baseball analogy to explain the rivalry accented by language, culture, history and politics to an uninitiated friend or family member.
But he knows that doesn’t do it justice.
“Like Yankees-Red Sox, I guess, in a way,” said Matthews, who led the NHL with 41 goals in 52 games. “A lot of rich history in this league over the last 100-plus years.
“It’s pretty incredible.”
The Leafs and Canadiens — the last of 16 teams to hit the ice in these playoffs — open the best-of-seven matchup Thursday inside a fan-less Scotiabank Arena because of COVID-19 rules.
Toronto and Montreal have played 15 previous times in the playoffs, but just twice since the NHL expanded in 1967. Situated in separate conferences for much of the 1980s and 1990s, the teams nearly went head-to-head in the 1993 Stanley Cup final, but Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings had other ideas, eliminating the Leafs in Game 7 before losing out to the Canadiens.
And while a few thousand spectators will be allowed inside the Bell Centre for a potential Game 6 following a Quebec government announcement relaxing restrictions, the coronavirus played a key role in ending the Montreal-Toronto playoff drought after the league was forced to create a one-and-done North Division consisting of all seven Canadian clubs due to border rules related to non-essential travel.
“You looked at the potential,” Keefe said. “It’s not quite the same when the buildings are empty, but we know there’s going to be a lot of people in front of their TVs.
“We’re looking forward to a very physical, competitive and hard-fought series.”
The Leafs (35-14-7) finished the shortened schedule first in their division, 18 points up on the fourth-place Canadiens (24-21-1), and held a 7-2-1 edge in the teams’ 10-game season series.
But Montreal winger Josh Anderson, who grew up just west of Toronto, said the underdog role is fine by him.
“Absolutely love it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s really anyone I’d rather play more.”
The Leafs, who last beat the Canadiens in the playoffs in the 1967 final to win their last Cup, and haven’t triumphed in a post-season series since 2004, are led by the dynamic duo of Matthews and linemate Mitch Marner.
The pair brought their on-ice connection to new heights in 2021. Marner finished fourth in league scoring with 67 points, while Matthews sat one back in a tie for fifth.
Toronto was disappointed by its showing during the qualifying stage inside last summer’s NHL bubble, which came on the heels of three consecutive first-round defeats.
The Leafs went out and secured grit and experience in Joe Thornton — the only player alive on either team the last time these franchises tangled in the playoffs — and Wayne Simmonds up front, as well as defenceman Zach Bogosian in free agency before doubling down with the acquisitions of forwards Nick Foligno and Riley Nash via trade close to the deadline.
“There should be plenty to be motivated by,” said Matthews, who had eight more goals than runaway points leader Connor McDavid in the race for the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy. “We’d obviously like to play a long time here in the spring and the summer.
“Everybody in this room is extremely motivated and really excited to get going.”
Another key for Toronto is in the crease, where Jack Campbell will start Game 1 after setting records with a 17-3-2 mark and a .921 save percentage.
The Leafs needed the 29-year-old to step up with Frederik Andersen out injured, and the netminder with well-documented struggles early in his career delivered — especially following a couple of sub-par April outings.
“His ability to respond to that was the thing that we found out and we really liked,” Keefe said. “That’s where things really turned the corner for him because it wasn’t just him getting hot and putting together a good string. Now things were starting to go the other way, and can you bring him back?
“Our confidence as a team has really grown since then.”
Montreal, meanwhile, also remade its roster during the off-season following a surprising bubble performance last summer in which the Canadiens upset Pittsburgh in the qualifying round.
The Canadiens, who dealt with a number of key injuries down the stretch in 2021, added Anderson and Tyler Toffoli in attack along with blue-liner Joel Edmundson and backup goalie Jake Allen to reinforce a roster led by starting netminder Carey Price, captain Shea Weber and heart-and-soul winger Brendan Gallagher.
“A lot of history,” Price said looking ahead to the series. “I’m sure both teams are very excited about the opportunity.
“They’re a solid hockey club … it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Stopping, or at least slowing down, Matthews will be crucial for Montreal. He had seven goals and seven assists in the 10 games between the teams in 2021, and has scored 19 times and put up a total of 31 points in 24 career contests against the Canadiens.
Montreal’s path to victory also includes upping the temperature after leading the NHL in hits during the regular season.
“The challenge for them is us being physical,” Anderson said. “We’re going to be bringing that presence from when the puck drops.”
It’s something the Leafs know is coming.
“We’ve got to be ready for a physical series no matter what, and I think we need to be more physical,” said defenceman Jake Muzzin, a Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. “But we’ve got to stay composed and play our game. We can’t get off track and try to run around and do all this crazy stuff.”
The players are ready. The teams are ready. And the fans of these storied organizations are certainly primed as well.
“It’s been a regular-season battle,” Keefe said. “Provincial battles and all those things in sports are real.
“But this is as real as it gets.”
Only 42 years in the making.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press