TORONTO – It’s only fitting that Ron Wilson might experience some flashbacks during a weekend of celebration for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Maple Leafs coach got his first taste of the Toronto-Montreal rivalry as a player in the late 1970s. Back then, Wilson’s Maple Leafs had trouble keeping up with the high-flying Habs.
Heading into Saturday’s game between the teams at Air Canada Centre, it was pretty easy for him to draw a parallel between then and now.
“In those days, Montreal was usually competing (for) or winning the Stanley Cup, so you had your hands full,” Wilson said after practice on Friday. “It’s not unlike the way we feel right now. Montreal is, on paper and in the standings, a much better team than we are.
“It’s kind of the same feeling. You’ve got to be prepared to play and you can’t make any mental mistakes or it will end up in your net.”
The Canadiens have already shown that theory to be correct. On the opening weekend of the season, they visited Toronto and left with a 6-1 victory.
That was actually a pretty rare blowout in a rivalry that seems to have picked up pace after the NHL lockout ended in 2005. The teams have played 25 times since then, with Montreal winning 13 games to Toronto’s 12. Amazingly, three-fifths of those games have been decided by one goal.
Matt Stajan is in his fifth season with the Maple Leafs and thinks the team’s strongest current rivals are Montreal and Ottawa.
“We’ve seen those guys 24 times the past three years,” said Stajan. “We play a lot of hockey against those guys. They’re great rivalries.
“There’s no teams better to beat than those two, especially Montreal.”
That will be anything but easy for a Leaf team that has dropped three straight games.
A major issue Toronto has battled all season is falling behind in games. They’ve trailed by at least two goals in seven of their last nine contests.
Prior to Thursday’s 5-2 loss in Boston, Wilson joked that he hoped to reverse the trend by picking up some strong coffee from one of that city’s ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts franchises. Toronto still fell behind the Bruins 3-0.
“Apparently, they put decaf in,” said Wilson. “I didn’t taste it, I would have been able to tell the difference. It wasn’t high test, I can tell you that.”
The NHL’s schedule-makers may have given them something of a break. After six days off, Montreal played in Columbus on Friday night before travelling to Toronto.
The Habs had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season and seem poised to challenge for that title again. The Toronto players know what to expect.
“They have a more skilled team than they had in previous years I believe,” said Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. “They have some young guys with skill that can skate and create some stuff.
“For us, we’re a hard-working team, so we’re going to play our game and grind them down.”
The 28-year-old winger was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, but has come to understand the importance of the Montreal-Toronto rivalry.
Ponikarovsky has spent parts of eight seasons with the Leafs and looks forward to games against the Habs just like many of his teammates.
“It’s the battle of Canada,” he said. “It’s been like that for years.”
Prior to Saturday’s game, several members of the Hockey Hall of Fame will be honoured at centre ice. They are in town as part of the festivities leading into Monday’s induction ceremony for the Hall’s 2008 class.
Having all those former greats in the building should only add to the amped-up atmosphere that always accompanies a rivalry that dates back to the early days of the NHL.
For the Leaf players, it’s more than just one of 82 games to be played during the regular season.
“If we play against Montreal, the atmosphere’s completely different,” said forward Nik Antropov. “The fans are just pumped up and so are the players. It’s fun to play those games.”
Added Stajan: “If you’re not up for these games, there’s something wrong.”
Notes: Toronto recalled forward Jiri Tlusty from the AHL Marlies to fill in for the injured John Mitchell … Mitchell expects to be out at least a week after sustaining a shoulder injury against Boston … The Maple Leafs head out for a Western swing next week that will take them to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.