Sports

Canadiens in familiar territory as underdogs to start 2021-22 season

TORONTO — This is familiar territory, and not just because the Montreal Canadiens are preparing to face the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 21st time since last January.

They come into Game 1 of the season at Scotiabank Arena as near two-to-one underdogs, according to the oddsmakers. They were even bigger underdogs for nearly every game of the seven-game series they won against the Leafs last May. They weren’t favoured to win a single game of the 22 they played en route to losing the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

With Shea Weber out, Carey Price in the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program and Joel Edmundson, Mike Hoffman, Paul Byron and Sami Niku injured, the Canadiens are well aware there will be few occasions in October where they represent anything other than a longshot bet.

“I’d say that right now we’re pretty much in the same situation we were in towards the end of last year,” Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said on Tuesday. “Not a lot of people believe in us, so we’ll see what we can do to change that.”

It’ll be a remarkable challenge out of the gate, up against a Toronto team out to exorcise its demons.

Oh, the pain must be so fresh for these Maple Leafs who, after finishing with the best record in the all-Canadian North Division, blew a 3-1 series lead to the 18th-placed Canadiens and yet another opportunity to get out of the first round for the first time since 2004.

Even without Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews and versatile forward Ilya Mikeyev to start, they’ll be gunning for the guys in bleu, blanc et rouge on Wednesday.

“It’s going to be fun,” said Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher in anticipation. “It’s going to be a competitive game. We remember that series, they obviously remember the series. It was competitive, especially as the series went on. I’m sure we’ll pick up where we left off.

“They’re a great hockey team, they do a lot of things well. But we’re very familiar with their strengths and we’re familiar with the ways that maybe we can take advantage of (them), so you try to stick with what worked for us in that series. There will obviously be some adjustments along the way but, for us, we know we’re playing a top hockey team in the league. Might as well test ourselves right away and it’s going to be a fun challenge for our group.”

It’s going to feel slightly different — with a fan in every seat for the first time since March of 2020 and with revamped rosters on both sides.

On Montreal’s blue line, David Savard is taking Weber’s spot next to Ben Chiarot after beating the Canadiens in the Final with Tampa and signing a four-year, $14-million deal to join them. Chris Wideman, who was named top defenceman in the KHL last season before signing in Montreal during the off-season, is lining up next to Alex Romanov, who was scratched from all seven games of the playoff series against the Maple Leafs. And Brett Kulak, who was scratched from one of them, is suddenly filling in Edmundson’s spot on the top pair next to Jeff Petry.

Up front, Phillip Danault, who did a masterful job shutting down Matthews and Toronto’s most offensively dynamic forward, Mitch Marner, now plays for the Los Angeles Kings. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who pushed the series to a seventh game with his overtime winner in Game 6 at the Bell Centre, is with the Carolina Hurricanes. Corey Perry, Montreal’s Swiss-Army knife forward last season, left to sign with the Lightning. And even with Jonathan Drouin returning from an extended period away from the team to deal with anxiety and insomnia issues, and Christian Dvorak coming over from the Arizona Coyotes to fill in at centre, those losses will be tough to overcome for the Canadiens.

As will the injuries.

“We’ve done it before,” Gallagher said. “We’ve had to deal with bodies being out. Usually, it doesn’t happen right away at the start of the year. But it’s just one of the challenges, one of the obstacles you’re given, especially playing an 82-game season, which we haven’t done in a while here. It’s one of those things where you’re going to go through highs and lows.”

The Maple Leafs experienced them last spring but cruised through the winter by winning 35 games and collecting an extra point in seven others over the 56-game schedule. The biggest obstacle they hit was when captain John Tavares, in a freak collision with Perry, suffered a concussion and a knee injury in Game 1 of the playoffs, and they couldn’t find a way to clear it.

But Tavares is healthy now and he’s back in the middle of their top line to start this season.

Michael Bunting, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase and Michael Amadio have stepped into holes left by the departures of Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton, Nick Foligno and Alex Galchenyuk. And Jack Campbell, who started all seven games of the series against the Canadiens, has a new backup in Petr Mrazek, with old Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen replacing Mrazek in Carolina.

Just like with the Canadiens, things have changed on the margins of this Maple Leafs squad.

But the cores of both teams are largely intact, and the DNA of the rivalry remains unaltered.

It should make the first of four meetings between the clubs this season that much more special.

“It’s always something special, I think,” said Ducharme. “Montreal and Toronto go way back, and the number of games that we played against each other in the last year-and-a-half just brings that to another level. It’s interesting and, for sure, exciting to be starting in Toronto.”

The Canadiens will do so in a building, Ducharme joked, they’ve seemingly played at more often than their own since the pandemic started—and once again as underdogs.

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