The Leafs skate into Montreal on Saturday, continuing one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history in terms of length, passion and polarizing effect. At least in Canada. More than just two hockey clubs playing each other, in many ways the rivalry is symbolic of the dual nature of Canada's founding and the ongoing struggles that involve Quebec and the rest of the country.
Earlier in the week there was another reminder of just how important the language issue is in Quebec when Habs' captain Saku Koivu was criticized for not learning how to speak French. The comments against Koivu came from a Quebec lawyer during public hearings about religious minorities in the province.
It's always ironic that any group feeling threatened (Quebec within Canada in this case) will usually end up taking out their frustrations on other minorities that have even less power in society. There have long been questions about how new immigrants to the province are treated and these hearings are looking at how new-comers are being discriminated against based on religion.
In an obvious attempt to shift the focus, the grand-standing lawyer launched a public attack on the Canadiens' Finnish captain.
Koivu took note and delivered the pre-game announcement of players mainly in French (albeit taped...he had done opening night's all in English which provided the kind of opening the language fascist lawyer was looking for) in the game against the Flyers on Friday.
He then promptly served up another response in the "actions speak louder than words" manner as he had a solid game and received well-deserved cheers from the Montreal crowd for both efforts.
Back to the Leafs/Canadiens game tonight. The Canadiens have been playing extremely well over the last seven games or so, earning at least a point in each of those contests. The story with these two teams is the contrast in special teams.
The Habs' power play is on fire at the moment, with a league wide best when it comes to converting extra man chances. When opposing teams are taking loads of penalties it usually is indicative of team speed and effort for the club being given the man advantage. A huge 21 goals on 68 chances for Montreal when on the power play.
The Leafs on the other hand are still having some problems when their opponents have a player in the box. They are at the bottom of the league when trying to make use of their chances. They have converted a measly eight out of 64 opportunities.
Add to that woeful stat the fact that the Leafs are worst in the NHL for coughing up short-handed goals with four. They gave up one against New Jersey on Friday night. The goal broke a tie, shifted the momentum towards the Devils and helped them to win 3-2 against the Leafs. Second loss in a row for Toronto after previously winning two consecutive games on the road. The Buds are taking plenty of bad penalties as well.
If those trends hold up tonight, it won't be good for the Leafs.
The game in Ottawa could be an interesting match-up. While the Senators have been rolling along, they did let up the other night against the worst team in the league (Atlanta Thrashers) and the game ended much closer than it should have.
With the exception of the shellacking the Bruins absorbed from the Canadiens 12 days ago, they have been playing well and winning some close games, with an overtime win against Buffalo on Thursday.
However, Boston hasn't fared too well against teams higher than them in the standings and obviously this will be the best team they have faced this season.
An all important divisional game will make this a close one I believe.
Zdeno Chara versus Brian McGrattan in the fisticuffs department perhaps?
Two disappointing under-achievers in the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils meet in the Big Apple. Both clubs have equally mediocre 5 and 6 records with the Rangers holding the dubious honour of being the lowest scoring team in the entire league.
The Devils have been putting the puck in the net at a better pace than the Rangers but have still been blanked three times this season. One of those shut-outs was delivered by the Rangers in a 2-0 win in the teams' first meeting of the season.
Maybe they should skip the preliminaries. Just head right to overtime instead of playing what's likely to be a bland, scoreless regulation.
Some other interesting match-ups amongst the eight other games being played on Saturday night. Phoenix coming off a big win against Dallas could highlight just how far the Ducks have fallen if they can handle Anaheim at home.
The Canucks must be thankful to get back on the road after they continued their dismal play at home in a loss to the Nashville Predators. Regardless, they'll still have to ratchet up their shots on goal (though they did manage 29 against the Preds) or they won't fare too well against a strong Colorado Avalanche team who are unbeaten at home so far this season.
The Sharks and Kings finish off a home and home series in Los Angeles tonight with the Kings winning the first leg 5-2 on Friday. Battle of California has some insight on that match-up and a preview of the Ducks and Coyotes game as well.
Pittsburgh travels to Long Island hoping that the re-energized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can keep scoring the way they have in the past few games. Though they'll want a better result than they had in their loss to the Avalanche on Thursday.
Florida in Carolina, Atlanta at Tampa Bay, Calgary in Minnesota and Chicago visiting St. Louis are the other games being played.