Mick Kern recaps the Montreal Canadiens at the Toronto Maple Leafs – Saturday, March 17th, 2018

Tomas Plekanec #19 of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for the puck against Charlie Lindgren #39 of the Montreal Canadiens during the second period at the Air Canada Centre on March 17, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

St. Patrick’s Day. The Habs always seem to be playing on this particular day, though it’s the 1955 NHL game against Boston that probably has created that impression. The game where the Patron Saint of Quebec couldn’t take part in thanks to a violent encounter with Bruins’ defenceman Hal Laycoe four days earlier. The Rocket slugged linesman Cliff Thompson twice during the resulting donnybrook and, quite understandably, the league wasn’t going to stand for that. It was the second time that season Richard had laid a hand on an on-ice official.

As a result, Richard missed the rest of the regular season, ended up losing the scoring race to teammate Bernie Geoffrion, and the faithful in Montreal were not happy, to say the least. Many of them found a way to vent their anger when NHL President Clarence Campbell took his usual seat at the Montreal Forum for the St. Patrick’s Day game.

You can look it up. The Richard Riots ensued, and maybe some of the early public manifestations of an awakening sense of Quebec nationalism. That’s all great theatre, but 63 years later, the storyline is decidedly less enthralling.

For whatever reason, these two old Original Six rivals never seem to be good (or bad) at the same time. There have been notable exceptions, and if the Maple Leafs could have mustered the internal fortitude to shake off a missed high stick call on The Patron Saint of Hockey back in the spring of 1993, then they would have met the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.

Which is the last time the not so Glorieux took home the big prize. 25 years and counting. Loud ticking of the clock counting. With no end to the drought in sight. Smug Habs fans can no longer point a disparaging finger down the 401 at the Leafs faithful, and mockingly utter 1967. Once your team hasn’t had to drag out the Stanley Cup parade route plans in over two decades, one loses that privilege.

Granted, it will be 51 years this spring since George Armstrong and his Maple Leafs beat the same Canadiens franchise for Toronto’s most recent Stanley Cup. But things look a lot rosier in Hogtown these days, thanks to Brendan Shanahan arriving in town and telling it like it was.

Paraphrasing, he told the faithful that this team, while good, will never be very good by remaining on the path we are currently on. There will be some years of pain as we jettison the now and focus on the future. Stay with us, and our odds of dusting off the Stanley Cup parade route plans will increase exponentially. No promises, but I do guarantee you nothing will move forward without moving backwards first.

So far, it’s worked. The Maple Leafs are one of the league’s most entertaining teams (well, depending on which version of the squad head coach Mike No Fun Babcock allows out on the ice that evening), chock full of young talent, and it isn’t at all crazy to utter the words Stanley Cup contender. This season.

There are bigger battleship teams moored in front of the Leafs, but probably more than at any point in NHL history since the Great Expansion of 1967 the truism is true; just get in because anything can happen.

Toronto appears destined to clash with Boston in the first round, and a cursory glance at the numbers reveals the Bruins struggle against the Leafs. Then again, Boston upended Tampa Bay 3-0 on this night, so maybe it’s Leafs vs. Lightning. Either way, a tough first-round matchup for everyone involved.

The very fact we can even discuss a logical path for the Leafs to the 2018 Cup Final casts a long, dark shadow over Montreal.

General Manager Marc Bergevin has made it clear his team doesn’t require a plan ala Shanahan. They are a move, or two, or three…or four…or five…away from being competitive again in the Eastern Conference.

Apologists could point to the fact the Habs were first in the Atlantic Division this time last season, though they bowed out in the first round to the New York Rangers, a winnable series. There was also a time in very recent history when Montreal owned the Maple Leafs, but that streak has ground to a halt.

Defenceman P.K. Subban is long gone, his replacement Shea Weber has been shut down for the season. Forward Max Pacioretty survived trade rumours and has slumped this year, Jonathan Drouin is not a saviour, Alex Galchenyuk wouldn’t be blamed if he just picked up and left in the middle of the night, and all-world goaltender Carey Price has been abducted by aliens.

The turtleneck sensation, forward Tomas Plekanec, was shipped to Toronto near the trade deadline. That may have been addition by subtraction, as Plekanec hasn’t necessarily lit the Big Smoke on fire yet. But it still represented the current woeful state of the Canadiens that they felt they had to move a loyal foot soldier. Drafted in 2001, Plekanec played in 981 regular season games wearing the bleu blanc et rouge, the 7th highest total in team history.

Sure, Montreal will have more lottery balls in the draft lottery machine for either defenceman Rasmus Dahlin or forward Andrei Svechnikov, but cynics will understandably wonder which teams Bergevin will ship either of them to in a couple of years.

On this particular Saturday, the usual red sprinkling of Montreal Canadiens’ sweaters dot the Air Canada Centre crowd, though maybe not as many as in previous years. There’s no hiding the fact that this current edition of the team isn’t in the same league as the Maple Leafs. And that point is painfully underscored by the halfway mark of the second period.

With Price yet again sidelined, Montreal has turned to Charlie Lindgren between the pipes, and the Lakeville, Minnesota native responded on this night, turning aside 45 shots in a 4-0 loss. Some of those 45 saves were gold star quality, in particular a move to his right to absolutely rob Tyler Bozak on the power play. If you haven’t seen it, Google it. Road hockey goaltending at its best.

(The joke is Lindgren will look good in a Seattle Coffee Beans uniform. I say Carey Price will look better).

That kept the game scoreless, but very soon after that, William Nylander let go a crafty shot that found twine, and the Leafs were off to two points without breaking a sweat. They didn’t have to ramp up their game for this one, yet still dominated Montreal in the second period, firing 26 at a beleaguered Mr. Lindgren. According to post-game reports, that’s the most shots the storied Canadiens franchise has ever permitted in one period, and that’s a lot of history to draw from.

At one point, I had to do a headcount to make sure I hadn’t missed a penalty to Montreal. The Leafs had them penned in their own zone, and there wasn’t a thing the five Montreal skaters could do about it.

And keep in mind this was a Toronto lineup without players like goaltender Frederik Andersen, winger Leo Komarov, and superstar centre Austin Matthews. And they still tore the Canadiens apart. Yes, Montreal were without Price, and Pacioretty, but this hasn’t been a good year for either player.

Not only did the Maple Leafs have them in sheer talent, they also had them in work ethic. This is a group of Montreal players who know they’re beat, and occasionally take down a Dallas, or an Islanders team, but they can’t play with the big boys.

The Toronto arena staff picking the three stars didn’t see fit to award Lindgren a Purple Heart on this night, electing instead to go with three Maple Leafs. Not that anyone should ever lose any sleep over who the arbitrary three stars are of a hockey game, but they missed on this one. Maple Leafs netminder Curtis McElhinney, also in a fill-in role, was solid in deflecting all 33 Montreal shots, and did what a goaltender on a good team has to do…don’t give the opposition any hope.

And make no mistake about it, there is no hope in Montreal. None that can be seen without really squinting and fudging the facts a bit. The farm system ain’t what it used to be, their best players are playing somewhere else, and there doesn’t appear to be an appetite for change at the top. This harsh reality was apparently too much for one fan in attendance, who lobbed his expensive red Montreal jersey onto the ice midway through the third period.

An official picked it up, and handed it to the penalty timekeeper. He handled it like a used Kleenex, careful not to catch anything off of it, before disposing of it. That’s pretty much how the Montreal Canadiens deserve to be dealt with these days. Don’t talk to me about 23 NHL Stanley Cups. That was last century.

The fans of the team can be forgiven for asking what the heck have you done recently? When was the last time a dynamic goal scorer played for the team? When was the last time the Canadiens were a real threat to challenge for the Stanley Cup, without counting on unconscious goaltending and more than a little luck? When was the last time this franchise struck fear into the league?

The King is long dead.