Netcrashing: 'Does the Leafs/Habs rivalry still exist?'

Jamie Bell, Staff

2/24/2011 3:59:05 PM

Ask any hockey fan over the age of 40 about the relationship between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens and chances are they will wax poetically about the legendary battles between the NHL's two most storied franchises. They will bring up names like Richard, Kennedy, Beliveau, Mahovlich, Plante and Sawchuk and discuss the fierce on-ice battles between these arch rivals.

Ask anyone under the age of 40 about the rivalry and chances are they will wonder what you're talking about.

While there remain many fans who try to keep the rivalry going by travelling to their opponent's rinks, sporting enemy gear and screaming 'Go Leafs Go' or 'OLE, OLE, OLE' at the top of their lungs, the passion between the opposing fan bases has diminished significantly over the past few decades.

Once upon a time, an encounter between the Habs and Buds was reason to celebrate. Now it appears to be little more than a mid-February game in an 82-game schedule. 

Is it possible that the rivalry no longer exists?

While the Canadiens and Leafs remain two of the league's marquee franchises at the box office and in merchandising, the lustre of their once historical rivalry has dulled somewhat by lack of playoff encounters and extended periods of mediocrity.

The Leafs' lack of success over the last four decades or so has been well documented, but the Canadiens have had their own fair share of lack of success over the past 20 years - mired in the their longest-ever Stanley Cup drought without lifting hockey's Holy Grail since 1993.

Thursday night's clash between the two former titans will be the fifth of six meetings this season. Thus far, the sides have split the series with both teams holding serve at home. While either side would undoubtedly love to pick up two points in the contest, the urgency to beat their opponent would not be any greater than say, if the Anaheim Ducks were rolling into town.

The fact of the matter is that these two teams no longer appear to have a significant 'hate on' for each other. Obviously the roster overhaul of the past few seasons in Toronto plays a role, however the fact that these two teams have played four games against each other this season and the lone scrap occurred between non-fighters P.K. Subban and Joffrey Lupul seems almost inconceivable for a pair of franchises that once sported the likes of John Ferguson, Tiger Williams, Chris Nilan and Tie Domi.

The merits of fighting in the sport can obviously be debated; but look at the most recent encounter between the Canadiens and their truer rivals - the Boston Bruins. While the game deteriorated into a bit of a gong-show by the third period, what was clear was that familiarity builds contempt and over the past few seasons these two teams have developed a genuine dislike of each other.  Look no further then the boxscore which shows a game that saw the two teams combine for 182 minutes in penalties and a goalie fight. 

Nobody is asking for James Reimer to skate the length of the ice to punch a goaltender he has never faced before in Alex Auld in the face, but a certain amount of animosity couldn't hurt if either side hopes to reignite the former flames in this rivalry.

Most sports fans believe that true rivalries are built in the post-season, if that's true then there is little wonder why these two teams have little anger for each other. While Canada's two oldest teams have faced each other 15 times in the playoffs, including five times with the Stanley Cup at stake, they have not met in post-season anger since 1978.  To put that in perspective, the only player on the Leafs roster even alive when the two hockey giants collided in the playoffs is JS Giguere, who was just one-year old at the time.

So if it has been determined that the Canadiens chosen dance partner in hockey's 'New World Order' is the Bruins both through recent bad blood and previous playoff encounters, then who are the Leafs' chief combatants? 

While Toronto has not had a sniff of the post-season since prior to the lockout, it's clear from their most recent playoff success that their most obvious rivals, both geographically and in head-to-head elimination competitions, are the Ottawa Senators. But anyone who watched last week's lacklustre 'Battle of On-terrible' between those two teams will attest that even that rivalry has lost a great deal of its previous shine. Considering the Senators lineup is nearly completely different from the one that they opened the season with, the lack of passion between the two seems almost inevitable.

If not the Senators then perhaps the Buffalo Sabres? Buffalo is actually closer to Toronto than Ottawa in terms of distance and Leafs fans tend to travel en masse to the Queen City when the Blue and White are in town. But once again, these two teams have very little in terms of playoff history. Facing each other only once way back in the Eastern Conference Final in 1999.

So are the Maple Leafs without a true rival, or does it remain the Habs by default, or at the end of the day does it even matter if they have a traditional rival?

Our question for you in the latest edition of Netcrashing is the following: 'Does the Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry still exist?'

Let your opinions be known in our Your Call feature below.