Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With this sprint of a season nearing its
conclusion, there will be no shortage of important games appearing on the NHL
Come Saturday evening, however, all eyes should be on a pair of Eastern
Conference rivalries that have returned to prominence after years of being
pushed to the margins.
First and foremost is a clash between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple
Leafs, who make up one of most storied rivalries in all of professional
sports, even if neither club has experienced much success in recent years.
In fact, the last time the Habs and Leafs made the playoffs in the same season
was nine years ago in the spring of 2004, which also was the last postseason
appearance for Toronto.
This season, however, sees Montreal sitting fourth in the East with 55 points
and the Leafs six points back in fifth place. Of course, that means if the
season ended today, the clubs would meet in the opening round of the playoffs,
marking the first postseason encounter between the Habs and Leafs since the
Whether or not Toronto and Montreal get a chance to renew their postseason
rivalry this spring after 30-plus years of waiting, Saturday's meeting in
Toronto is sure to have a playoff atmosphere. After all, Maple Leafs fans
have been forced to sit through the longest postseason drought in team history
in recent years and they're likely to let it all hang out for the biggest game
this rivalry has seen in years.
The self-proclaimed "Centre of the Hockey Universe," Toronto has some time to
whip itself into a frenzy for Saturday's showdown. The Leafs have two full
days off in between Wednesday's meeting with the New York Rangers and the
marquee matchup at Air Canada Centre.
Montreal, meanwhile, is visiting Buffalo on Thursday before it can shift its
focus to this weekend's big game.
Even during the lean years, though, the Habs-Leafs matchup still has had way
more juice than the Rangers-Islanders rivalry. That's why Montreal and Toronto
still play most of their games against each other in prime time and usually do
so on Saturday nights, where they continue to produce huge TV ratings in
Canada. The Leafs and Habs also played each other on opening night in 2013 and
the clubs will close the season in Toronto on April 27.
The New York clubs will get their chance in the spotlight on Saturday night,
however, as they face off in the most important game at Nassau Coliseum in
quite some time.
Entering Thursday's action, the Rangers, Islanders and Ottawa Senators are all
tied at 44 points for the East's final three playoff seeds. With a little over
two weeks of games left in the regular season, Saturday's battle on Long
Island -- the final scheduled meeting between the clubs -- could loom large
over the conference's playoff race.
The playoff picture adds some serious clout to a rivalry that had seen better
days heading into this season. The New York teams have rarely been good at the
same time over the last few decades and they haven't faced each other in the
playoffs since 1994, when the Rangers swept the Isles in the opening round en
route to the franchise's last Stanley Cup title.
Of course, the Isles are mostly to blame for the lack of recent postseason
encounters between these clubs. The Long Island residents have missed the
playoffs in each of the past five springs and they have qualified for the
postseason just four times in 17 seasons following the encounter in 1994.
Saturday's clash at the Coliseum could lay the groundwork for a revitalized
rivalry between the clubs and it comes a few years before the Isles are set to
move their home into the Rangers' backyard. The Isles are winding down their
time at the building derisively called "The Mausoleum" and will begin calling
Brooklyn's Barclays Center home beginning with the 2015-16 season.
With John Tavares, the Islanders' superstar in the making, signed with the
club through 2017-18 and the Rangers usually near the top of the NHL's payroll
list, this could be the start of an exciting new era for a rivalry that had
There's always some top-notch rivalry games with playoff implications down the
stretch of any NHL season, but Saturday's slate could breath new life into two
of the league's most important matchups. Better catch them while you can
because if recent history is any indicator, who knows the next time these
rivalries will mean this much.
The Sports Network