TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs need only to look across the ice on opening night to see an example of what they hope to become.
Even though their opponents on Thursday will be the Montreal Canadiens—a team looking for better things of its own in 2011-12—Toronto’s historical rival serves as a pretty good role model. Icing a lineup built largely on depth, the Canadiens have only missed out on the post-season once in six seasons since the lockout.
“They’ve been consistent the past few years in making the playoffs,” Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said after practice Wednesday. “They’re a perfect example of a team that works hard every night. They get contributions from all four lines. I’d say they’re kind of an underdog going into every year and they always seem to find a way to be in the playoffs.
“Not to say that we’re modelling our system or our game after the Montreal Canadiens, I wouldn’t say that at all, but it just goes to show that if you bring it every night any team can get in.”
At this point, that would represent a major step forward for the Leafs.
The urgency of their situation is reflected in the roster juggling that went on right until the final day of training camp. Centre David Steckel joined his new teammates at practice one day after being acquired from New Jersey in a trade and acknowledged it will be a little strange to get thrown right into the opening game of the season.
“(It’s) pretty difficult,” said Steckel, the top faceoff man in the NHL last season. “As far as systems, I’m not really worried about that. It’s more of going out, playing hard and trying to get to know my linemates.”
The Leafs will start the year with two core forwards on injured reserve—top centre Tim Connolly (upper body) and winger Nazem Kadri (knee)—while Clarke MacArthur is on the sidelines serving a two-game suspension.
Montreal did some late roster juggling of its own, claiming centre Blair Betts off waivers from Philadelphia on Thursday to give it added depth. Otherwise, the team has essentially the same core intact.
“We’ve been together now for a couple years and we feel like we’ve added to our group,” Habs forward Mike Cammalleri told reporters in Collingwood, Ont., where Montreal wrapped up a bonding trip. “We think we have a pretty good team, but at the same time we understand all that remains to be seen. The talk is very cheap at this point.
“Whether or not your season is successful is not going to be determined in the next week. We’d definitely like to get out to a good start right now and just be a good team.”
A key for the Canadiens will once again be the play of Carey Price. He’s coming off his best NHL season and is expected to shoulder the load again—although coach Jacques Martin hopes to work in new backup Peter Budaj often enough to keep Price’s appearances below the 72 he made last year.
“We need him to be at his best for us to be successful,” said Martin.
Toronto is equally counting on its No. 1 man, James Reimer, who took over the top job with solid play in the second half of last season. He struggled at times during the pre-season and seems to be under the microscope more than ever.
“It will be no different than last year,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “The last two months he was clearly our No. 1 goalie and he handled that. So he’s just got to do what he does well and shut out all the noise.”
While the Leafs were reluctant to discuss it, the Canadiens are likely one of the teams they’ll have to leapfrog in order to make the playoffs this year. The Habs were sixth in the Eastern Conference last season while Toronto was 10th.
Thursday’s game will be the first of six Montreal and Toronto play this season.
“The first thing that stands out (about the Canadiens) is they have a ton of speed,” said Schenn. “We’re positive they’re going to be using their speed and forechecking hard on us. Montreal’s always a great rival and there’s no better time than the first game of the year to play them.”