Rick Zamperin: Maple Leafs and Canadiens battle to become Kings of the North

Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki fends off Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews during second period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Saturday marks the one month anniversary since the start of this ridiculously fascinating National Hockey League season amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the newly formed, albeit temporary, North Division has not at all disappointed.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens are set to square off Saturday night, exactly one month after they opened the abbreviated 2020-21 season in dramatic fashion — a 5-4 overtime victory by the Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.

Fast forward 30 days, and Toronto and Montreal sit one-two in their quest to become the Kings of the North and are clearly the top two teams in the division.

Toronto (11-2-1) has looked very good during the first month of the campaign, powered by league-leading goal scorer Auston Matthews, assist machine Mitch Marner, a revamped defence that has quickly come together and a solid start to the year by goalie Frederik Anderson.

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Despite injuries to veteran centre Joe Thornton, physical forward Wayne Simmonds, backup goalie Jack Campbell and youngster Nick Robertson, the Leafs have not slowed down.

The Habs have roared out to a great start thanks in large part to a couple of newcomers on the roster.

Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson lead the team with nine goals each while defenceman Jeff Petry (6 goals, 8 assists) is an early favourite for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top blueliner.

Of course, we can’t talk about Montreal (8-4-2) without mentioning their goaltending, and both Carey Price and newly acquired backup Jake Allen are the top tandem in the division, and one of the best in the NHL.

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After trading sniper Patrik Laine to Columbus on Jan. 23 for centre Pierre-Luc Dubois — who spent the next 14 days in quarantine after crossing the Canada-U.S. border — the Winnipeg Jets have proven to be the third-best team in the North so far this year, even though they sit in fourth place.

The Jets (8-4-1) may be a point behind Edmonton but they also have three games in hand on the Edmonton Oilers.

Winnipeg’s usual suspects, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Connor Hellebuyck, have been their best players, and Nikolaj Ehlers has enjoyed one of the best starts to a season in his career by registering 16 points in the team’s first 13 games.

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The Oilers hold down the third spot despite their up-and-down play this season.

Edmonton has two of the most dynamic players in the league in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who are first and second, respectively, in the NHL points race, but the Oilers have been rather disappointing so far.

Entering the weekend with a record of 9-7-0, Edmonton has shown to be either incapable of putting forth a complete performance at both ends of the ice, or unwilling to do so, and it has hurt them in the win-loss column.

Buoyed by the addition of new starting netminder Jacob Markstrom, who’s been great in his new threads so far, the Calgary Flames (7-5-1) are two points behind Winnipeg for the final playoff position.

But with three games in hand on their provincial rivals, Calgary is well-positioned to leap-frog Edmonton as long as their top performers — Markstrom, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Sean Monahan — continue their solid play.

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Thanks to a tire fire of a defensive unit, Vancouver (6-11-0) has endured an early-season free fall — losing their last six games — and Canucks head coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning show no signs of figuring out how to turn the tide.

Sophomore defenceman Quinn Hughes, sniper Brock Boeser and veteran J.T. Miller have led the way for the Canucks, but star centre Elias Peterson just doesn’t look like himself of late and Vancouver’s goaltending tandem of Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko have been left out to dry much too often.

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As expected, the Ottawa Senators (2-12-1) are looking up at Canada’s six other teams from the bottom of the division after registering only two wins in 14 outings thus far.

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If there is one positive for the Sens, it’s that their two victories have come against the two best teams in the division, Toronto and Montreal.

Ottawa has a bunch of young talent on its roster, such as captain Thomas Chabot, physical forward Brady Tkachuk and rookie Tim Stutzle, but night in and night out, the Senators have proven that they just don’t have the horses to compete with the more talented teams in the division.

If the playoffs started right now, Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa would be on the outside looking in and the first-round matchups would see the Maple Leafs facing the Jets and the Canadiens against the Oilers.

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How much the standings will change over the final three months of the schedule will depend on how teams are able to weather injuries, COVID-19 cases, as well as hot streaks and cold runs.

But as it stands now, Canada’s two most iconic franchises, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, are the gems of the North.

Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.

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