So this is what it has come to? The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs meet on the final night of the regular season and the disenchanted fan bases for both clubs hope their teams conclude the year of discontent with a loss.
A loss, after all, gives either Original Six club a better chance at a higher selection at the NHL entry draft in June. But if the Canadiens beat the visiting Leafs in regulation time on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET), and the New York Islanders snatch two points at Columbus, the Habs will finish 15th in the East and the Maple Leafs 14th.
This is so 1970, when the Maple Leafs finished last in the sixth-team Eastern Conference, one position behind the fifth-place Canadiens. Well, actually the Canadiens had a chance to make the playoffs on the season's final day 42 years ago, but they lost their finale and as a result lost on a tiebreaker with the New York Rangers for the final playoff spot in the East.
More than four decades later, we've known for a couple weeks now that the 785th combined regular season and playoff meeting between the Habs and Leafs would be meaningless.
In Toronto, until the Maple Leafs pulled off wins at home over the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Lightning, the fans have been either angry that their team will miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season or they have given up. In Montreal, the fans seem more hopeful and interested with the process of hiring Pierre Gauthier's replacement.
Gauthier lasted only 25 months in the general manager chair of the Canadiens. Meanwhile, Maple Leafs counterpart Brian Burke likely will reach his fourth anniversary at the helm in Toronto this fall, and this makes the blood boil of some of the Maple Leafs faithful.
While Toronto skated out of the gate with a purpose and appeared destined for their first playoff berth since the 2004-05 lockout as late as mid-February, the Canadiens started meekly with one win in their first seven games.
Gauthier put his team in a tough spot when he miscalculated the return of defenceman Andrei Markov from his knee troubles by only five months. The Maple Leafs implosion happened because their team defence finally became exposed by some poor goaltending, and Toronto stopped winning at home.
Both teams had their share of injuries, but that is not uncommon around the NHL these days. The Canadiens had a busier infirmary at 430 man-games lost to injury, compared to the Maple Leafs at 240.
But where do we go from here? The expectations are different in both cities. The hopes have always been higher in Montreal. The Maple Leafs have become a laughingstock in the league. Toronto is the only team that hasn't played a playoff game since the lockout.
The Habs have made it to the East final once in seven years and gave the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins just as difficult a time in the first-round round of the playoffs as the Vancouver Canucks did in the final, if not more, last spring.
The Canadiens appear to be in a better situation to swiftly turnaround their fortunes. They have an elite goalie in Carey Price, a young stud defender in P.K. Subban, an emerging playmaker in 25-year-old David Desharnais, snipers in Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty and hopes they will get captain Brian Gionta and Markov back for a full season. They also should benefit from some fresh ideas from a new GM and coach.
The Maple Leafs don't have a dependable netminder. They do have Carl Gunnarsson and Jake Gardiner on the blue-line, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul up front. But they don't have the depth of the rival Canadiens.
Down on the farm, it will be make or break years for Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne in terms of their NHL future in Toronto next season. Montreal has minor-leaguers Louis Leblanc, Aaron Palushaj, Andreas Engqvist and Frederic St. Denis on the verge of becoming full-time NHLers. Because of the injury problems with the Canadiens, all enjoyed significant time in the NHL this season.
So there you go, the season of discontent in Toronto and Montreal is about to conclude. We'll see which franchise can escape the basement quicker. Maybe they can call the Ottawa Senators for help.
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