TORONTO — It’s been more than four decades since the Montreal Canadiens faced the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now, at long last, they’ll meet again.
And it’s a big deal for Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen, even if there won’t be any fans in the stands because of COVID-19.
“To be able to play the Leafs in the first round of the playoffs, even just playing the Leafs in general, is a special feeling,” Allen said. “It’s been such a long time since that’s happened. We’ve got to cherish it.”
The meeting of the Original Six rivals in the first round was confirmed Tuesday night when the Winnipeg Jets beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-0. That result locked in the top four teams in the NHL’s North Division and set up the matchup between the division-leading Leafs and fourth-place Habs. The North Division playoffs could start as early as May 19. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004.
The Canadiens and Leafs have met 15 times in the postseason. Montreal holds an 8-7 edge, including a four-game sweep in their last meeting in the 1979 quarterfinals en route to winning the Stanley Cup for the fourth straight time. The Leafs, who won the season series with Montreal 7-2-1, haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, a span of 54 years that matches the NHL record for the longest drought between Stanley Cup championships set by the New York Rangers from 1940-94.
Toronto and Montreal built their rivalry as the only two Canadian teams in the NHL from 1938 until Vancouver’s addition in 1970, but the hype around the upcoming series doesn’t appear to have made its way yet into the Toronto dressing room.
“We didn’t even bring it up or discuss it this morning,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after the team’s skate on Wednesday.
“I’m not going to talk about the series until the series comes to Day 1,” added forward Mitch Marner, who appeared annoyed to be asked about it a second time.
Maybe it’s a case of the coaches and players sticking to a script before a potentially testy postseason showdown. Or maybe the rivalry has simply been diluted over time. None of the players were alive in 1979 and Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme was only six years old.
While not outwardly showing a great deal of enthusiasm for the series, Keefe did acknowledge that it was beneficial for the Leafs to know who their first-round opponent would be.
“We just played Montreal four times, so we know what to expect there in that sense,” he said. “Of course, we know their roster will look different and they’ll be a much more rested team when we see them again.
“We’ve got two regular-season games to play this week, and we’re just remaining focused on that.”