Maple Leafs, Canadiens set to renew NHLs oldest playoff rivalry

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Thus was described in a Montreal Gazette report in 1918 the first Stanley Cup Playoff game between the Toronto Arenas (not yet the Maple Leafs) and the visiting Montreal Canadiens. And so it will be with the two oldest teams in the NHL set to face each other again in the postseason for the first time since 1979.

Video: The Canadiens and Leafs have some history

Toronto and Montreal have met in 15 playoff series, No. 16 now at hand with Game 1 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round on Thursday, when the Maple Leafs host the Canadiens (7:30 p.m., NHLN, CBC, TVAS, SN). It’s a matchup that’s stirred fans throughout Canada and beyond.

The Maple Leafs, the No. 1 seed in the Scotia North Division, handled the No. 4 Canadiens with ease in the regular season, going 7-2-1 in their 10 games with a 34-25 goals advantage. Montreal, meanwhile, has an eight-game playoff win streak in the series, having swept Toronto in a 1978 Semifinal and 1979 Quarterfinal, each season bound for a Stanley Cup championship, the latter the last time they met.

Toronto Maple Leafs captain George Armstrong carries the Stanley Cup off Maple Leaf Gardens ice on May 2, 1967 following his team’s Game 6 championship win against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Stanley Cup has been at stake five times in their 15 meetings, Toronto leading 3-2. Only once has a series gone the seven-game limit, the Maple Leafs winning a 1964 semifinal; four have been sweeps, all won by Montreal.

Video: 1959 Stanley Cup Final, Gm3: Canadiens vs Maple Leafs

The 1918 series, a semifinal, was to determine the inaugural NHL champion and the right to play the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champion for the Stanley Cup. Toronto was a 7-3 winner in the first of a two-game series against Montreal, three months into the League’s maiden season. Harry Meeking scored three goals, setting the stage for Toronto’s 4-3 loss in Game 2 back in Montreal but a championship based on total goals (10-7). 

The Arenas, or “Torontos” as they were sometimes called, went on to win 3-2 in a best-of-5 series against the PCHA-champion Vancouver Millionaires for the franchise’s first of 13 Stanley Cup titles.

(The team would become known as the Maple Leafs in 1926-27, born the Arenas in 1917 and rebranded the St. Patricks two years later.)

The Montreal Canadiens rebounded from their 1967 upset loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup in 1968 (here), again in 1969 and eight more since then.

Bookending the historic first playoff game in 1918 was Game 4 in 1979. The sweep by the Canadiens wasn’t without effort, Montreal winning Game 3 in double overtime, then eliminating Toronto in overtime on a power-play goal scored by defenseman Larry Robinson. Including Meeking’s first goal in their first playoff head-to-head and Robinson’s winner in their most recent, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens have combined for 375 goals, Montreal holding a 215-160 edge.

Video: Keon, Cournoyer discuss historic TOR-MTL rivalry

But for all the statistics, there is a symbolism, a polarity. There is what the Maple Leafs and Canadiens intrinsically mean to Canada. 

A once white-hot rivalry that was largely cooled by realignment and the ebb and flow of fortune is now a crackling fire once more because of temporary realignment this season, a division of the seven Canada-based NHL teams created due to travel concerns because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

NHL realignment in 1981-82 made meetings between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs fewer, diminishing the heat of their rivalry, diluting its venom. The separation lasted until 1998-99, when they were reunited in the Northeast Division; since 2013-14 they’ve been in the Atlantic, until they were joined this season in the North.

Unmasked Montreal Canadiens rookie goalie Rogie Vachon saw his first Stanley Cup Playoff action against Toronto in 1967. Toronto veterans Terry Sawchuk (left) and Johnny Bower anchored the Maple Leafs championship that season.

“There was an English element to it and a French element to it, culture against culture,” said Maple Leafs legend Dave Keon, a native of Noranda in northern Quebec who won four Stanley Cup titles with Toronto, including their most recent in 1967. “For the players on both sides, there was tremendous pride. You wanted to win.”

In the rivalry’s prime, the action on the ice was only part of the equation, feuds between management and coaches as bitter as those between players. 

It was almost expected during the NHL Original Six era, between 1942-67, that the Canadiens and Maple Leafs would meet in the playoffs, squawking and jabbing at each other on the season-long road to get there.

If fans of the teams were scattered across Canada, pockets of support for Toronto and Montreal from sea to sea, the country was almost divided at the border of its two largest provinces; Quebec and the Maritimes to the east cheered for the Canadiens, Ontario and provinces west were Leafs Nation.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Frank Mahovlich with his wife, Marie, and their son, Ted, at Maple Leaf Gardens with the 1967 Stanley Cup. Mahovlich would win the 1971 and 1973 championships as a member of the Canadiens.

The love of one team and hatred for the other was a little of what stitched Canada together through a long, cold winter.

The teams met 11 times in postseason series between 1944-67, greybeard Toronto — average age 31 — upsetting favored Montreal in the 1967 Final in the final season, Canada’s Centennial year, before expansion doubled the NHL from six to 12 teams. 

Video: 1967 Stanley Cup Final, Gm6: Canadiens vs Leafs

“We were really good for one month,” said Keon, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1967 as the most valuable player of the postseason. 

“And we had a little bit of luck. … We had good goaltending with John [Bower] and Terry [Sawchuk], and people played really well. You have to understand the difference between winning and losing is tiny.”

Each team has to be good and competitive for a rivalry to flourish, Keon believes.

“And one team can’t win all the time,” he said. “Everybody talks about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. My wife is from Boston and I tell her that Boston never won against the Yankees, so it wasn’t a competition. The Yankees won all the time. That’s not a rivalry. It’s a rivalry when one team wins and the other team wins. When one team wins all the time, you just have great animosity.”

Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens on Feb. 22, 1967, a 5-2 Canadiens victory. The Maple Leafs would win the championship on Gardens ice in a six-game Final against Montreal.

Yvan Cournoyer, who won 10 Stanley Cup championships with Montreal between 1965-79, has said his hockey career was defined by two events — winning the landmark 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union, and losing to Toronto in 1967.

“We were sure we’d beat the Maple Leafs. We thought we had a better team and we knew they were older than us,” Cournoyer said. “I don’t remember all the Stanley Cups I won year by year, but I remember 1967 all the time. When you’ve already won (which the Canadiens had in 1965 and 1966), you think you’re going to win it again. 

“The mistake we made is that we didn’t respect the Leafs. It was a good lesson for me to think, ‘Hey, I know you can win the Stanley Cup, but you’re going to have to work harder for it.'”

As Toronto’s championship drought began — the Maple Leafs are without a title since 1967 — the Canadiens won again in 1968, 1969, 1971, 1973 and four straight from 1976-79, then added titles in 1986 and 1993. The 1993 Cup title was the last won by a Canada-based team. 

At last, for the first time in 42 years, two iconic teams are going head to head again in a best-of-7 series. And as they do, they renew a playoff rivalry that once was almost an essential rite of Canadian spring.

Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame Images/Dave Stubbs

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