Stu Cowan: Bell Centre will be rockin’ for Canadiens vs. Leafs

Surprising Habs can move ahead of Toronto in the Atlantic Division standings with a regulation-time victory on Hockey Night in Canada.

The Place’ll Be Rockin’ ‘Cause It’s Saturday Night is the title of the song that used to be performed by Michael Zweig of the Toronto rock band Carpet Frogs at the beginning of Hockey Night in Canada telecasts.

The Bell Centre will definitely be rockin’ this Saturday when the Canadiens and Maple Leafs square off (7 p.m., CBC, SN1, CITY, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio). It’s been a long time since Montreal hockey fans have been this excited about their team.

The Canadiens are coming off a very impressive 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets Thursday and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division. More importantly, the Canadiens (31-18-6) are only one point behind the Maple Leafs (33-17-3) — who hold two games in hand — and can move ahead of them with a regulation-time victory. This will be only the second meeting between these teams this season after the Leafs beat the Canadiens 3-2 in OT on opening night Oct. 3 in Toronto.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ John Tavares deflects a shot in front of Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Sept. 26, 2018. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

There’s a ton of hockey on TV these days, but there’s still something special about Hockey Night in Canada — even more so when it’s Canadiens vs. Leafs. The way things are going, there’s also a chance these teams could meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1979, when the Canadiens swept the Leafs in the quarter-finals en route to winning the Stanley Cup. It’s hard to believe anyone would have predicted that scenario before this season started, with the Leafs considered to be Stanley Cup contenders and the Canadiens not expected to make the playoffs after finishing 28th in the overall NHL standings last season.

The Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw, who has missed the last 15 games with a neck injury, is chomping at the bit to get back in the lineup and hopes to get medical clearance to face the Maple Leafs. Shaw, who grew up in Belleville, Ont., has fond memories of watching Hockey Night in Canada with his family and then pretending to be in that situation while playing road hockey. But the Shaw family wasn’t cheering for the Canadiens or Leafs.

“I was a Sabres fan,” Shaw said. “Weird team to cheer for considering where I lived. My dad was a Bruins fan, so he hated Montreal and the Leafs, so he wouldn’t let me like them. So I went with Buffalo. They had (Chris) Drury, (Daniel) Brière, (Derek) Roy, a bunch of guys I liked watching play. Smaller guys.”

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien grew up as a Canadiens fan in the Ottawa suburb of Orléans, but his brother was a Maple Leafs fans, which created quite a rivalry when they played road hockey.

“Growing up as a kid — I hate to date myself — but there was basically six teams,” the 58-year-old coach said. “In street hockey, I was a Montreal fan and I know at the time — he’s not anymore, he’s a Montreal fan — but at the time my brother was a Leafs fan. So we had the jerseys and we played street hockey. Those were two teams back in those days that had great teams, so those things I remember vividly and that the competition between my brother and I was always there.”

This Canadiens team has surprised a lot of people this season — including me — and nothing was more surprising than the way they dominated the Jets Thursday, outshooting a team that sits third in the overall NHL standings 53-34 in a game that easily could have been 7-2 or 8-2 instead of the 5-2 final.

“We just had a good game and we’ve had a few of those kind of games this year as well,” Julien said. “So it’s not like the first time we’ve really played well. But I think there was a big buildup about the Winnipeg team coming in here and they’re one of the best teams in the West and the firepower and everything that came with it.

“I think people were kind of interested seeing how we would react and we played a good game and we won a hockey game. I liked the way we played. What am I happy about? Our team play last night. But nobody’s guaranteed us we’re going to play like that tomorrow. We’ve got to go out there and make it happen and that’s what we’re trying to do with this team here is making guys understand that you got to start all over again. If we can stay hungry and get excited about doing the right things that’s going to pay off.

“I think tomorrow’s going to be an exciting game, not just for the fact of the history, but there’s a point between the two teams,” Julien added. “We realize they have two games in hand, but it doesn’t matter. You go out there and you try and win a hockey game and try and keep plugging away like we’ve been doing all year.”

One thing is certain about Saturday night: The place’ll be rockin’.

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