Leafs, Habs kick off NHL season in Montreal

9:41 AM, Oct 1, 2013   |    comments
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(SportsNetwork.com) - The 2013-14 NHL campaign kicks off Tuesday evening with the renewal of an old rivalry, as the Montreal Canadiens host the Toronto Maple Leafs in a season-opening clash at the Bell Centre.

The contest also marks the first game under the NHL's new realignment plan, which has broken the league down into four divisions while keeping the East and West conferences intact. Both the Canadiens and Maple Leafs are playing in the Atlantic Division, which also features Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

The Habs and Leafs are both aiming to return to the postseason after qualifying for the playoffs in the spring of 2013. It was Toronto's first trip to the playoffs since 2004, ending the longest postseason drought in franchise history.

Although the Leafs were assured of the club's most successful season in quite some time just by virtue of making the playoffs, it's difficult to call Toronto's campaign a success considering the way it ended.

The Leafs surprised just about everyone by pushing Boston to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs and then held a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 before suffering a monumental collapse. The Bruins would score three times in the final 10 minutes of regulation to send Game 7 into overtime and then won it 5-4 on a Patrice Bergeron goal in the extra session. Adding insult to injury, the hated Bruins went on to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance after eclipsing the Maple Leafs in the classic Game 7 battle.

No doubt spurred on by that nightmarish Game 7, the Leafs made numerous changes to their roster over the long offseason. Toronto general manager Dave Nonis not only acquired forwards David Clarkson and Dave Bolland and goaltender Jonathan Bernier over the summer, but he also decided to buy out the contracts of defenseman Mike Komisarek and forward Mikhail Grabovski.

Unfortunately, Clarkson, who signed a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with the Leafs over the summer, won't be available to make his debut for the franchise until Oct. 25. The 29-year-old was handed a 10-game suspension by the league for leaving the bench to join a brawl in an exhibition game against Buffalo on Sept. 22. Clarkson was brought in to relieve Toronto forwards Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul of some of their scoring duties, but the former New Jersey Devil will have to wait a while before he can help his new team on the ice.

Speaking of Kessel, the speedy winger is reportedly close to signing an eight- year contract extension to remain with the Leafs. The 25-year-old has led Toronto in both goals and points in each of his four seasons with the club.

Bernier and last season's starting netminder James Reimer are expected to battle for playing time in the early going. The 25-year-old Bernier, a first- round pick by Los Angeles in 2007, was acquired in an offseason trade with the Kings after spending time as Jonathan Quick's backup. Bernier went 9-3-1 with a 1.88 goals against average for L.A. during the lockout-shortened season of 2013, while Reimer was 19-8-5 with a 2.46 GAA in 33 games for Toronto.

Reimer is expected to get the start in Tuesday's opener and is 4-3-0 with a 2.69 GAA in eight career games against Montreal.

Although the Canadiens didn't fall apart in a Game 7 like the Maple Leafs did last spring, Montreal's 2013 postseason appearance was also one the franchise would rather forget. The Habs were the East's second seed in the spring, but were bounced out in just five games by the Ottawa Senators, who outscored the Canadiens by a combined 20-9 score in the lopsided series.

Montreal boasts some speedy but undersized players on offense and the reigning Norris Trophy winner in defenseman P.K. Subban, but as usual, goaltender Carey Price will be the player under the microscope in Game 1 of the regular season.

Price always seems to be a lightning rod for controversy in Montreal, and he certainly gave his detractors fuel for the fire with a lackluster showing last season.

Price turned in an average 2013 regular season, going 21-13-4 with a 2.59 goals against average and .905 save percentage in 39 games. The 26-year-old then suffered through an awful performance in the playoffs, posting a 3.26 GAA and .896 save percentage in four postseason games against Ottawa last spring before an injury caused him to miss Game 5.

Peter Budaj returns as the backup in net, but Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien hopes the Slovakian netminder's services aren't needed on opening night.

An upper-body injury will cause Montreal to begin the season without defenseman Douglas Murray, who was signed to a one-year, $1.5 million contract this summer, but team captain Brian Gionta is expected to play in the opener after undergoing surgery to his left biceps in the offseason.

"Playing well for long stretches will be the main challenge for all teams," Gionta recently told his club's official website. "The season is 82 games long and you have to find a way to play with consistency, to be competitive and to give yourself a chance to win every time."

The Maple Leafs and Habs are meeting for the first of five encounters this season. The clubs met five times last season, with Toronto claiming three of those contests to give it six victories over the past 11 games in this series.

Toronto also went 2-0 in Montreal last season and has won five times in its last six trips to the Bell Centre.

The Canadiens had a 14-7-3 record on home ice during the 2013 regular season, while Toronto was 13-8-3 on the road.

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