In a recent Bleacher Report post I ranked the Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs rivalry as the second-most overrated in the NHL. That didn’t sit well with some Habs and Leafs fans, who rather vehemently (and in some cases, obnoxiously) took me to task.
As a Canadiens fan married to a Leafs fan, I fully appreciate how much it means for fans of both clubs. Despite the lack of anything truly worth cheering for over the last three decades, Canadiens and Leafs fans are to be commended for maintaining their passionate support of this rivalry.
Its legacy rests in the Original Six era, when the Canadiens and Leafs were regularly among the NHL’s best teams and frequently met in the playoffs. From 1944 to 1967 the two clubs faced each other in postseason competition 11 times, with the Leafs winning six series and three Stanley Cups to the Habs five series and two Stanley Cups.
Culture also enters into it, though it has more to do with the makeup of Ontario and Quebec – indeed, of Canada as a whole – of an earlier time than of today. During the Original Six era the Leafs were seen as representing not just Toronto but English Canada, while of course the Canadiens were representative of Francophones, not just in Quebec but across Canada.
Times have changed, for the teams, for Ontario and Quebec, for Canada and the NHL. The Leafs biggest stars are American. The Habs are no long the “Flying Frenchmen” of yore. The rosters of both teams are now made up of players from across Canada, the United States and Europe, just like every other team in today’s NHL. The cultural and language differences aren’t as significant anymore.
As for the respective performances of the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, since 1967 they met in the playoffs only twice, in the 1978 semifinal and the 1979 quarterfinal. In both the Canadiens, in the midst of a four-straight Stanley Cup dynasty, easily defeated the Leafs.
It’s been 35 years since the Habs and Leafs faced off in the playoffs. One reason is, from 1981-82 to 1997-98, the Leafs were in the Campbell Conference/Western Conference, significantly limiting the opportunity for postseason competition between the two.
The Leafs returned to the Eastern Conference in 1998, but that did nothing to improve their rivalry with the Canadiens. From 1998-99 to present the Canadiens missed the playoffs six times (1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2012). The Leafs went seven straight seasons (2005-06 to 2011-12) without a postseason appearance. Hard to get those postseason matchups when one team or the other fails to make the cut.
Habs and Leafs fans would be hard-pressed to come up with five meaningful games between these two teams since 1979. I can only think of two. One is former Canadiens coach Pat Burns’ first game in Montreal during the 1992-93 season as coach of the Maple Leafs. The other is the Leafs eliminating the Canadiens from playoff contention during the final weekend of the 2006-07 season, in which the following day the Leafs were themselves eliminated when the NY Islanders beat the New Jersey Devils in a 3-2 shootout. Those are small beer compared to those which built the rivalry during the Original Six era.
It can be suggested the higher number of teams in today’s NHL makes it difficult for the Leafs and Habs to meet in the playoffs. That never seems to be a problem for the Canadiens longstanding rivalry with the Boston Bruins. They have faced off against each other in several playoff series in every decade of the post-expansion era. Since the Leafs relocation to the Eastern Conference, the Habs and Bruins tangled five times (2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011) in the postseason.
As a Canadiens fan I find the rivalry with the Bruins more meaningful. Despite years of changes for both clubs, the ferocity and excitement of the Canadiens-Bruins rivalry never wanes. That’s because they regularly face each other in the playoffs. As a result, regular season games are more meaningful between the two, seen as potential playoff previews. It’s must-see hockey regardless of when they face each other.
The Canadian media (especially Hockey Night in Canada) loves to play up the Canadiens-Leafs games, and the players of both teams publicly claim the rivalry’s still important, but many of their contests simply aren’t worth the hype. At best, they provide Saturday night bragging rights for their fans, to be quickly forgotten the next day. The league has done what it can to increase opportunities for the Leafs and Habs to face each other in the playoffs. It’s now up to the teams to do their part for this rivalry to be worthy of its hype and its legacy.