Original Six rivals reunite Wednesday night when the Montreal Canadiens visit a Toronto Maple Leafs team with high expectations in the new season.
The Maple Leafs are coming off a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division to the Boston Bruins, who are unlikely to duplicate their record-setting 135-point performance of last season.
The Maple Leafs also ended their run of first-round eliminations over 19 years in the playoffs by defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff series before losing to the Florida Panthers in the second round.
The Maple Leafs, who will be led by center Auston Matthews and right wing Mitchell Marner once again, intend to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup this season.
Under new general manager Brad Treliving, Toronto signed forwards Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi and Ryan Reaves as free agents to add grit and toughness.
“Our group is not taking anything for granted,” Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “It starts Wednesday night. It’s not hard to keep your focus at all in this league, with how good the teams are, how good our division is. I don’t think it’s challenging to stay motivated.”
The Canadiens finished last in the Atlantic last season and will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs.
Center Nick Suzuki and right wing Cole Caufield figure to be key players in what appears to be another rebuilding season under coach Martin St. Louis.
The Canadiens need to improve their special teams after ranking 29th in the league last season in both the power play and in killing penalties.
The Canadiens have a group of young defensemen, and some will start the season with the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League.
Defenseman Arber Xhekaj is expected to open the season with the Canadiens and make an impact after his impressive rookie season ended in February with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
He is better offensively than defensively at this stage of his career and does not back down when the game gets physical.
“I definitely expect big things out of me,” Xhekaj said. “I have a bigger role this year with a couple of guys leaving the team. Mainly, it’s just our team goal this year. We know what we want this year and we’re going to go for it.
“We’re young, but I think we got all of our first years out of the way last year and we got some experience now. So that’s our goal this year, to make the playoffs.”
Toronto goaltender Ilya Samsonov appears to be ready to play despite taking a high shot in the neck area from Calle Jarnkrok at practice on Friday. Samsonov returned to the ice on Saturday.
“Puck is a little bit faster than me,” Samsonov said. “Hit in the neck (area). Little bit bad after, but today is better. Just a little bit sore. … I feel good.”
Samsonov has a plan to prepare for the season opener.
“Small details is where I need to get better,” Samsonov said. “We have time. We’re working on how I’m using my feet right now, how I’m skating.”
Samsonov’s goal for the season reflects where the Maple Leafs see themselves at the dawn of a new season.
“I want to win the Stanley Cup,” Samsonov said. “That’s it for me.”
Jake Allen is expected to start in goal for the Canadiens on Wednesday.
The Maple Leafs traded forward Sam Lafferty to the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday for a 2024 fifth-round draft pick.