The wait is over. After yet another long off-season following a fifth consecutive year of missing out on the NHL post-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are set to kick off the 2010-11 season against their oldest rival, the Montreal Canadiens.
Both teams have undergone an off-season where – despite the lack of a full-scale overhaul – crucial moves were made to bring in key players or (in Montreal’s case) provide a better opportunity for players already in the organization. Gone from the 2009-10 Toronto lineup are Viktor Stalberg, Rickard Wallin and Keith Primeau, replaced by Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, and Brett Lebda. In Montreal, the most impactful move was the trade of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St Louis in exchange for Lars Eller, a move which paves the way for Carey Price to assert his standing among starting NHL netminders.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Veteran J-S Giguere, who will be in net for the Leafs tonight, enters his first full season with the Maple Leafs, and fourteenth as an NHL goaltender. ‘Jiggy’ seemed to re-discover his game upon his arrival in Toronto midway through last season, posting a .916 SV% in 15 games played with the Leafs. The effect of his steadying presence was seen immediately in the play of the defense corps, which seemed to find its own game, as a unit, almost overnight. The Leafs are desperately hoping Father Time holds off on catching up to Giguere, so they may again bank on the play of the goaltender directly (and positively) influencing the play of the defensive players, and continue to develop young Jonas Gustavsson at a relaxed and moderate pace. While durability questions will never fully escape Giguere given his age and previous dehydration issues, it is by no means a stretch to expect him to be his usual reliable and technically-sound self in the early going.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, counter with the much-maligned Carey Price. Retained in favor of post-season magician Jaroslav Halak, Price has already found himself deemed a scapegoat before his team has even played a game. Such is life for goaltenders in Montreal. Working in Price’s favor is the fact he no longer has to worry about losing his job on a long-term basis, now that Halak is out of the picture. Working against Price, however, is the fact that he only won three of twelve games started following New Years’ Eve. Not to mention the fans in Montreal, many of whom are already booing him at every turn. How quickly Price, whose talent has never been in question, can recover his confidence will be the single-greatest determining factor in terms of early-season success for Montreal.
The Leafs would do themselves a tremendous favor by focusing on staying out of the box as much as possible. Although the penalty-kill seemed to be improving during the pre-season, the fact remains it is not hard to improve from a ranking of 30th overall (it’s damn near impossible not to) and those units are still a work in progress. On the other hand, should the Leafs be able to goad the Habs’ players into taking penalties, their powerplay (also ranked 30th last season) was very effective during the preseason and a major turnaround in that area of the game is expected as the season progresses.
The Canadiens boasted the league’s second-best powerplay last season, and despite the absences of Cammalleri and Markov will look to continue that trend against the penalty-prone Leafs. Newly-anointed Habs’ captain Brian Gionta is a player to watch here, as is Jaro Spacek who will in all likelihood fill Markov’s spot on the point. Montreal’s penalty-kill is no picnic to face either; the 12th-ranked unit from last season returns intact, bolstered by the addition of veteran Jeff Halpern to join penalty-kill stalwarts Travis Moen and Tom Pyatt.
Injuries / Depth
Perhaps the single most important factor for tonight’s game is the respective health of the players for both organizations.
The Leafs enter this game relatively healthy. While some injuries persist to depth defenders Brett Lebda and Jeff Finger, their core players and main minute-munchers appear to be tip-top and ready to go. Toronto boasts the advantage of being able to dress six defenders who could fit into any team’s top four, a perk that will come in handy when the injury bug does (inevitably) strike.
The Canadiens, on the other hand, have not experienced such good fortune and have found themselves forced to stretch their team depth thin before the season has even begun. Already without Andrei Markov, who is still recovering from a torn ACL sustained during last season’s playoffs, the Habs will be without the services of Roman Hamrlik (knee) and top offensive threat Michael Cammalleri (suspension). The absence of their top defensive pairing, and their top scorer, will place much pressure on the less-experienced Josh Gorges, PK Subban and Benoit Pouliot, respectively, to fill those key voids in the lineup.
Opening night games don’t get much better than this – a heated rivalry featuring two teams with much to prove (Montreal: defending the choice of Price as their man; Toronto: showing fans the rebuilding strategy is an effective one). With the Canadiens’ defense and offense both significantly weakened for this match, the Maple Leafs have an opportunity at their doorstep to snatch a season-opening victory in what will no doubt be a tightly-contested battle from start to finish. Considering the unproven nature of the Toronto offense, the end result of this match will be primarily determined by puck possession, special teams and, ultimately, goaltending.
In which case, Giguere’s mental fortitude, borne of several years’ worth of experience and adversity, gets the edge over the crumbling ruins of Carey Price’s psyche.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,