TORONTO – The only thing the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will be left competing for next week is a good draft position.
That reality cast a shadow over Saturday’s regular-season finale between the two traditional rivals at Bell Centre, especially with members of both passionate fanbases hoping for a loss to secure the best position possible in the draft lottery.
The teams themselves were each hoping to finish on a high note and expected the atmosphere to be as good as usual—despite the stark reality of the standings.
“It’s an event,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Friday. “It doesn’t have the lustre obviously, but any time the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens play on a Saturday night, it’s an event. It will be highly attended and watched by fans from both hockey clubs and it’ll be a national game.
“It’s part of the fabric of hockey in Canada.”
It might also be one of the most meaningless regular-season games ever played between the franchises. This is just the third time that both teams failed to qualify for the playoffs in the same season—fourth if you include the Habs and Toronto St. Patricks in 1925-26—making Saturday’s game about little more than pride.
Montreal needs a victory to avoid registering its lowest point total since 1999. Win or lose, the 30-35-16 Habs are assured of finishing no better than 28th in the NHL’s overall standings, guaranteeing themselves a spot in the draft lottery.
A Leafs victory on Saturday could keep them from joining the Canadiens in the group of five teams with a chance to win the No. 1 draft pick. They enter the game in 26th spot and would remain there with a loss.
It’s a precarious position for the franchise, with players and coaches looking to put their best foot forward and many fans hoping for better draft position—and a brighter future.
The Leafs left little doubt of their intentions Thursday by tying a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning with less than three minutes remaining before winning it in overtime on a goal by captain Dion Phaneuf. They’re looking to follow it up with another victory over Montreal.
“There’s a huge rivalry between our two teams, there’s a lot of history,” said Phaneuf. “Whether it’s in their building or our building, there’s a lot of emotion. They’re fun games to be a part of as a player. …
“We want to finish on a winning note.”
Teams will be looking for victories of a different time come Tuesday’s draft lottery. The last-place Columbus Blue Jackets are assured of the best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick at 48.2 per cent. The next four teams will have odds ranging from 18.8 per cent to 8.1 per cent.
Neither Toronto or Montreal ever imagined it would be part of that conversation when the season began in October. The Leafs skated away with a 2-0 victory over the Habs on opening night at Air Canada Centre, but trouble would soon find both teams.
James Reimer, the Leafs top goalie, suffered a head injury in their second matchup on Oct. 22 when Montreal captain Brian Gionta collided with him. He was never the same and will sit out the finale after suffering another head injury—something that will keep Canadiens No. 1 Carey Price out as well.
Both teams endured major changes during disappointing campaigns. Randy Cunneyworth replaced Jacques Martin behind the Montreal bench in December and general manager Pierre Gauthier was fired last week. Toronto saw coach Ron Wilson replaced by Carlyle during a visit to Montreal in March.
The coaching change didn’t come with instant results and Carlyle has made it clear that he’ll be looking for much more out of his players next season.
“It’s important to me right now … (that) there’s going to be an understanding that what has transpired is only the tip of the iceberg on our expectations,” said Carlyle.
Before that, there is the small bother of Game 82 on the schedule. It’s one the Leafs and Habs would just as soon move past.