Maple Leafs-Canadiens Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated January 18, 2013
With a combined 35 Stanley Cups, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are two of the league's proudest franchises. Neither team, however, is coming off a season to be particularly proud of. While there appears to be a glimmer of hope the Canadiens will see some improvements, it doesn't seem the Maple Leafs have done enough to get back into the playoff picture. These Original Six rivals open the condensed 48-game season Saturday night in Montreal. The Canadiens finished an Eastern Conference-worst 31-35-16 last season, ending a four-year run of making the playoffs. The campaign was marked by injuries and a coaching change, when Jacques Martin was fired Dec. 17 and replaced by first-time coach Randy Cunneyworth. "I definitely felt that it was slipping away from us last year," veteran defenseman Josh Gorges said. "We can go over it and over it and talk about excuses on why things didn't happen, but I'd rather talk about the things that we'll do to be better this year." In the end, general manager Pierre Gauthier was also fired after a disastrous series of player moves, including the trade of playoff scoring hero Michael Cammalleri to Calgary for Rene Bourque. The underperforming Bourque finished with five goals and three assists in 38 games. Marc Bergevin replaced Gauthier and Michel Therrien is the new coach. Therrien returns to the team that gave him his first NHL job a decade ago. The 24-time Stanley Cup-champion Canadiens should benefit from the returns of captain Brian Gionta and veteran defenseman Andrei Markov. Gionta, who had 29 goals in 2010-11, missed 51 games last season with a torn biceps, and Markov has appeared in just 20 games over the past two seasons due to knee problems. The Canadiens were a force on the power play when the 34-year-old Markov was in his prime. They were 28th in the league with a 14.3 percent success rate without him last season. Erik Cole, in his first season with the team last year, led the Canadiens with 35 goals. His line with Max Pacioretty, coming off a breakout 65-point campaign, and small center David Desharnais has been kept together as the team's top unit and could be productive again. Carey Price had a bit of a disappointing season, finishing 26-28-11 with a 2.43 goals-against average and four shutouts - four fewer than he had in 2010-11. The challenge now is for Bergevin to sign holdout defenseman P.K. Subban, who will not be in the lineup for the opener. A slimmed-down Tomas Kaberle has been playing in Subban's spot with Gorges, while Markov skates with Alexei Emelin. "Everyone who went through what we went through last year knows we cannot repeat what we did," center Lars Eller said. "There's only one way and that's forward." The Maple Leafs are hoping for a similar turnaround, though their situation seems a bit less promising. Toronto went 35-37-10 to finish 13th in the East, and days after the season ended, the team apologized to the fans for a seventh straight season without a playoff berth - the longest drought in the NHL. "We have fallen short of everyone's expectations, and for that we are sorry," Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment said in a newspaper ad. "We take full responsibility for how this team performs on the ice and we make no excuses." Coach Randy Carlyle, who took over the slumping team with 18 games left last season after then-general manager Brian Burke fired Ron Wilson, needs to repair a porous defense, first and foremost. Toronto finished 29th in the league last season in goals against (264). Only Tampa Bay (281) was worse. "The bottom line is we've got to - as a team - put a better product on the ice," captain Dion Phaneuf said, "and play better as a group." James Reimer, whose season was derailed by a head injury last year, and Ben Scrivens are the goaltending options, while fans debate the merits of adding Roberto Luongo - and whether Dave Nonis taking over for Burke as GM may ease trade negotiations with the Canucks. Reimer is healthy again, but Scrivens has the advantage of being in midseason form after playing in the AHL. Up front, the team will look to familiar faces in Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul to provide offense, and there are high expectations for James van Riemsdyk, who fell out of favor in Philadelphia. Van Riemsdyk, acquired in a June trade, had 11 goals and 24 points in his final season as a Flyer. "We're working towards getting off to a good start," Phaneuf said. These teams split six meetings last season, with each winning twice on the road.
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