What to watch as the Montreal Canadiens start the season in Toronto
An hour before Quebecers are required to be indoors for curfew, the puck will drop at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto (7 p.m.) and the Montreal Canadiens will get to show fans what the team's got in the 2021 shortened 56-game COVID-19 season for the first time.
Can the NHL stop pretending it's the 2020-2021 season, please?
Tonight's game against the Leafs is the first in the new all-Canadian division.
Here are a few things to watch from the bleu-blanc-rouge.January 13, 2021
HABS ARE BIG
It's been a while since the Canadiens were considered a big, tough team ready to throw some bodies around, but lo and behold, here we are.
The Habs are a lot tougher than the Leafs.
Led by Jeff "the Dish" Petry (led the team with 177 hits last season in 71 games), the Habs are no longer the team to get pushed around by the bigger boys in the league.
Josh Anderson (68 hits in just 26 games) and Joel Edmundson (118 hits, 68 games) join Ben Chiarot (152 hits, 69 games), Joel Armia (146 hits, 58 games) and Shea Weber (112 hits, 65 games) as players who can run a body into the boards with the best of them.
Toronto, by comparison, has just two players -- Wayne Simmonds (145, 68) and Jake Muzzin (109, 53) -- with over 100 hits last season.
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber keeps teammate Josh Anderson at bay during the first team practice in Brossard, Que. on Monday, January 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
In the spot usually dedicated to Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher and Weber, Habs fans can actually put pressure on other players for once.
At long last, the Habs have one of the most talented and dynamic collection of face off men in the league.
Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi showed in the playoffs they are up-and-coming talents ready to shine, slash and skate with the best of them, and newly acquired Tyler Toffoli and Victoriaville native-son Phillip Danault mean the centre of the ice will be inhabited by quality talent at all times.
Side note: How good does that Suzuki/Tomas Tatar acquisition for whatever that guy's name is looking now?
If there is a reason to take the +400 bet that the Habs will top the north division over the favoured Leafs, look no further than the depth of squad Montreal has found itself with.
The Canadiens' depth is no better illustrated than on its working-man's fourth line -- Atturi Lehkonen, Paul Byron and Jake Evans. The line is tailor-made to turn defence to offence, and can match up with any grinder league in the all-Canadian division.
Also, it's time to see what Alexander Romanov is all about. He was picked in the second round of the 2018 draft and is getting the nod from coach Claude Julien to join the ranks.
The most hopeful fans are whispering of Norris Trophies while the realists of the world think he can put up some offensive numbers.
Montreal Canadiens Alexander Romanov (right) listens to teammate Xavier Ouellet during the first team practice in Brossard, Que. on Monday, January 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
HISTORY MAKERS OR BREAKERS
Speaking of centres...
If $15.9-million-man Auston Matthews scores tonight, he will be the first player in NHL history to score in five straight season openers.
I'll just leave that one there.
Fun fact: Old Joe Thorton will drape his magnificent grey beard over a Leafs jersey for the first time tonight. At 41 years old, he will line up with Matthews and Mitch Marner, who were two years old when Thorton debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1999.
THE CORONAVIRUS SEASON
With 27 players testing positive for the novel coronavirus at training camps out of the approximately 12,000 tests administered to more than 1,200 players since the end of December, expect headlines involving positive tests throughout the season.
Dallas (which included 17 positive tests) gets to seat socially distanced, masked fans, as do Florida and Arizona.
The Stars games Thursday and Friday in Florida against the Panthers have been postponed.