It’s hard to say that two teams playing their first game against each other since February of 2012 can boast a strong rivalry, but such is the case as evidenced by the raucous game we witnessed last night in Rogers Arena when the Toronto Maple Leafs took on the Vancouver Canucks.
The amount of storylines heading into this match-up was staggering. First and foremost on everybody’s mind was Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, who many had assumed, himself included, would have been wearing the blue maple leaf on his sweater this season. Twice during the fiasco of last season did Luongo nearly end up in Toronto before deals fell through at the last second. “I was pretty sure I was going to end up there…I was pretty shocked and surprised when I didn’t.” Luongo said to reporters prior to the game.
Good thing for the Canucks that he didn’t, I suppose, as Luongo picked up the shutout in a 4-0 Vancouver victory. With the shutout, the 63rd of his career, Luongo moved past former Leaf great Turk Broda into 15th on the all time list, another small wrinkle in the rivalry between the two teams.
The man Luongo was thought to replace in Toronto, James Reimer, did not have as good a night, allowing four goals against. You can’t pin the loss entirely on Reimer however, as the Leafs were outshot to the tune of 47-21 and the loss could have been much more lopsided if not for a few outstanding stops by the young netminder.
Once it became clear that the Leafs were easily outmatched in this one, the fireworks began. Canucks agitator Alex Burrows has some fun at Phil Kessel’s expense, mocking the latter’s now infamous stick swinging incident earlier this year against John Scott of the Sabres. Clearly Burrows got under Kessel’s skin, and the two scrapped during the first period – a trade-off that the Canucks would take any time.
Those weren’t the only fireworks though. Colton Orr and Tom Sestito has a spirited bout in the second period after the game got out of hand for the Leafs, with Orr easily getting the best of him. In the third frame James Van Riemsdyk took an ill-advised boarding penalty which prompted a scuffle at the benches and ten minute misconducts for both David Clarkson and Zack Kassian.
Another storyline to watch was the return of Mason Raymond to Vancouver. The 28-year-old Raymond was a Canucks draft pick back in 2005 and spent his entire career with Vancouver before joining the Leafs as a free agent this summer. Raymond has had a very good start to the season (five goals and 11 points through 15 games) and was hoping to prove the Canucks were wrong to let him go. However he (and every Leaf) was held pointless in a little over nineteen minutes of ice time.
Not lost in all the hoopla was the fact the Canucks were celebrating Pavel Bure night. Bure, who spent seven years in Vancouver, became the fourth Canuck to have his jersey retired by the team. It was a fitting tribute for the most electrifying players in Vancouver’s 43 year history, and the only Hall of Famer to have his best years in a Canuck uniform.
This rivalry of course goes back further than tonight. The loss marked the Leaf’s tenth in a row against the Canucks. In fact, you would have to go all the way back to 2003 to find the last time that Toronto managed to defeat Vancouver. That streak includes many memorable games, the most notable of which was former Leafs captain Mats Sundin’s return to Toronto in 2009 as a member of the Canucks and scoring the deciding goal in the shootout to applause from the home crowd.
Not to mention of course the rivalry that has supposedly sprung up between the team’s two general managers, Mike Gillis and Dave Nonis. Lest we forget that Gillis was the man who was brought in to replace Nonis as GM of the Canucks. They appears to have a toxic relationship stemming from the fallout over the potential Luongo deals over the last year, and neither man makes their dislike for the other a secret.
There are certainly societal factors that also add fuel to the flames of hatred between the two clubs. Toronto is, of course, Canada’s largest city, a fact not lost on the people of Vancouver who fight with the Leafs not only for airtime on sports networks in Canada, but also for fans within a hockey-crazed country. For two teams that don’t play each other all that often, every match-up is an event to be watched from coast to coast in Canada.
So hockey fans, keep February 8th circled on your calenders, because that’s the next time these two will face-off against each other, this time on Toronto’s home turf. If it’s anything like the hugely entertaining game we saw last night in Vancouver, I think it’s fair to expect another outstanding game. These clubs may be separated both geographically and by conference, but the rivalry is one of the most contentious in the entire NHL.
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