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Here are five things you should know about the Canadiens-Flames game at the Bell Centre Thursday (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio):
The matchup: This is the Canadiens’ home opener and the first game this season against the Flames, who will stick around for a rematch on Saturday. Montreal is off to a strong start, going 4-0-2 on the road to start the season. The Canadiens trail first-place Toronto by two points in the Canadian division, but they also hold two games in hand. The Flames have dropped their last two games, losing twice to the Maple Leafs in Calgary. The Flames are 2-2-1 and sit sixth in the Canadian Division.
Toffoli leads deep lineup: All you need to know about the Canadiens’ depth is to look at the scoring. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is the No. 3 centre in the pecking order but, thanks to Tyler Toffoli, he’s in the middle of the team’s top scoring line. Toffoli, Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia/Corey Perry have combined for nine goals, with Toffoli leading the team with five. They have helped the Canadiens shed their image as a boring, defence-oriented club by averaging 4.83 goals a game, which makes them the most productive team in the NHL. On the minus side, the Canadiens are 17th in goals allowed at 2.83 per game and 26th in faceoffs (45.7 per cent).
Friendly rivals: The NHL coaching fraternity is a tight-knit group and Canadiens coach Claude Julien and his Calgary counterpart, Geoff Ward, have a history dating to 2000 when Julien coached the Canadian junior team and Ward was one his assistants. Julien hired Ward as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and later with the Boston Bruins. Ward was named interim coach of the Flames last November after Bill Peters resigned following allegations of racist comments and abuse of players. He led the Flames to a 24-5-3 record over the last half of the season and a qualifying-round win over Winnipeg before losing to Dallas in the first round of the playoffs.
Not-so-friendly rivals: Milan Lucic — who became Public Enemy No. 1 at the Bell Centre when he terrorized the Canadiens as a member of the Boston Bruins — returns to Montreal for the first time since rookie Cale Fleury floored him with a hard, but legal check, last February. Lucic became infamous in these parts when he threatened Dale Weise and Alexei Emelin after the Canadiens eliminated Boston from the 2014 playoffs. Despite the history, the Canadiens tried to sign him as a free agent in 2016.
The other guys: When your nickname is Johnny Hockey, you better be good and Johnny Gaudreau is the engine that drives Calgary. He had two goals in a 4-3 loss to Toronto Tuesday and leads the team in goals (four) and points (seven). Think of the 5-foot-9 winger as Brendan Gallagher without the edge. The edge is supplied by 23-year-old Matthew Tkachuk, who has averaged 27 goals during the past three seasons. The Flames are solid up the middle with centres Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund, while 2019 Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano anchors the defence.
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