Leafs ready for Canadiens in season opener

The Leafs and Canadiens will open their NHL seasons at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Photo Courtesy Samira Khan/Creative Commons-flickr (67380998_39cc4ebdfe)

On Thursday night, the puck will drop on a new year in the hockey world at the Air Canada Centre.

Toronto’s 2011-12 season begins against their longtime rivals the Montreal Canadiens.

The Maple Leafs and Habs played to a draw last season, trading wins back and forth in their six head-to-head contests. If history counts for anything, the Leafs dropped the Canadiens 3-2 at the ACC in 2010-11’s home opener.

“Last year we started the first two at home and we were fine, then won the next two on the road,” said Ron Wilson, Leafs coach via the team’s website. “With it being [against] Montreal at home, it makes it even more exciting.”

Wilson’s Maple Leafs will have to be sharp to beat Montreal and its goaltender Carey Price, who is coming off of a career-best 38 wins and eight shutouts last season.

Offensive-defenceman John-Michael Liles could help to solve Price in his Maple Leaf debut, but Tim Connolly’s first regular season game as a Leaf will be put on hold as he was placed on the injured reserve list Wednesday.

Newly acquired centre David Steckel will be in the Leafs roster for the first time Thursday night, however.

Steckel lead all centremen with a 62.3% faceoff record last year, but he is more notorious for delivering the initial blow to the head of Sidney Crosby that resulted in the superstar’s extended absence from the game.

“If you want to be an asset as a third line centre or a fourth line centre, you need to be able to do something else, and winning draws is that [for me],” said Steckel on the Leafs official website.

Enigmatic sniper Phil Kessel should be able to bulge the twine in the opener, or at least factor in the offence, as he has 23 points in 29 career matches against the Habs.

This comes as good news considering the Leafs will also be without last year’s second-leading scorer, Clarke MacArthur, who is serving a two-game suspension for a pre-season hit.

Leafs netminder James Reimer is 1-1 in his career against Montreal, with a GAA of 4.00.  The 23-year-old goaltender is looking to dodge the sophomore-slump in following up his 20-win rookie campaign.

Eric Cole and Blair Betts are two gritty forwards who will be making their regular season debut in the bleu-blanc-et-rouge, but it’s Toronto-native Mike Cammalleri who is bound to be on Reimer’s mind in the opener.

Cammalleri’s goal totals have dipped in the last two seasons, but he is one of those special players who have a nose for the net.

Montreal is hoping Scott Gomez will be able to bounce back after a terrible season in 2010-11, and where better to start than against a hated rival. In his career Gomez has posted an effective 36 points against the Leafs in 44 games played.

Factor in Tomas Plekanec and captain Brian Gionta and Montreal is bound to have Reimer feeling the heat between the pipes.

On defence, P.K. Subban will have to step up and fill the hole left by departed blue liners Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski. Subban has the skills, but historically against Toronto he has been held to just one point.

Should this edition of the Toronto-Montreal rivalry boil down to special teams the Habs have the clear advantage.

Last year Montreal was ranked seventh in power play (19.7%) and penalty kill (84.4%), while the Leafs posted a 22nd ranked power play (16%) and an abysmal 28th place penalty kill (77.4%).

Puck drops at 7 p.m. ET on CBC and RDS.