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Habs, Leafs open season with much different expectations

TORONTO -- The Montreal Canadiens visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night as two long-time rivals open the season with widely different expectations.

After signing free agent center John Tavares in the offseason to augment an already promising group of young players led by center Auston Matthews, the Maple Leafs are shooting for the Stanley Cup this season. Tavares had a fine preseason, working well with right winger Mitch Marner.

The Canadiens, however, are trying to climb back to respectability after a dismal 2017-18 season.

The Maple Leafs have shown signs during the past two seasons that they are growing into Cup contenders, but they have lost in the playoffs in the first round twice in a row.

And with a pair of first-round losses in the past two Stanley Cup playoffs relatively fresh, the Leafs collectively shake their heads at the idea a similar fate could be awaiting them next April.

"We've been there, done that," defenseman Morgan Rielly said. "We have done the thing where we make the playoffs and lose in the first round. It's not very fun and I think we're tired of that. The goal is to start with a good couple of months, build toward a playoff push, make the playoffs and go from there. You have to take it one step at a time, but when you look at the big picture, you want to play longer and have a shorter summer than we did in the last two years."

The Canadiens made two big offseason deals, sending Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes and former captain Mac Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights. In return, the Habs received Max Domi from Arizona and Tomas Tatar, a second-round draft pick and good prospect Nick Suzuki from Vegas.

The Canadiens also named defenseman Shea Weber as the 30th captain in the team's storied history Monday, replacing Pacioretty.

"I don't know how many times you can say an honor, because you look at the guys (on the walls) in our dressing room, guys that have worn this letter in this organization's history, it's special," said Weber, 33, who was acquired from the Nashville Predators two years ago in exchange for P.K. Subban.

Weber underwent offseason knee surgery and is not expected to be return to competition until mid-December, which makes it even important that goaltender Carey Price regains his old magic.

Habs general manager Marc Bergevin said the choice for captain was obvious.

"The players all feel the same way, we all feel the same way that Shea is the right guy to lead this team and we didn't want to wait," he said. "Training camp was over, season starts on Wednesday and (Monday) was the perfect day."

In another development, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the third overall pick in the draft this past June, has earned a roster spot to open the season. The 18-year-old is the youngest Canadiens player since Mario Tremblay broke in shortly after his 18th birthday in 1974.

As the opener drew closer, the Maple Leafs were still waiting to sign their restricted free agent William Nylander.

Meanwhile, the Leafs traded defenseman Connor Carrick to the Dallas Stars for a seventh-round draft choice Monday and put goaltenders Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers. Both were claimed, which means Garret Sparks, the American Hockey League goaltender of the year last season with the Toronto Marlies, will begin the season as the backup for Frederik Andersen.

"We're going to be ready to go, for sure," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "In the NHL, there is nothing between all of us. Every night you play it's a one-goal game and it's a battle. And yet the good teams win more of those one-goal games and at the end, it seems like you won every night easy. But you didn't. You scratched and clawed your way through the year. That's just what you do."

Updated October 2, 2018

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