By Steve Keating
TORONTO, Feb 27 (Reuters) - The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens faced off against each other for the 717th time on Wednesday and as always the bad blood flowed.
It was the same when the two teams met 17 days earlier on Montreal ice, the nastiness no different from that witnessed in hundreds of other games in a rivalry that spans nearly 100 years.
The Canadiens and Maple Leafs are Canada's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, a hockey blood feud that has at times split a country and divided families.
But it has also thrilled, the heat and passion generated by the National Hockey League's oldest rivalry capable of warming up a miserable winter's evening just as it did on Wednesday when the Canadiens struck for three goals in the last 11 minutes to steal a 5-2 win.
Good teams or bad, pre-season or playoffs, Canadiens-Leafs encounters are always circled in red by the legions of hockey fans in Canada's two biggest cities.
Even last season, when Montreal finished at the bottom of the Eastern conference, their 78 points just two fewer than Toronto, the clashes marked the highlight of disappointing campaigns.
But more than pride was on the line as the Canadiens paid their first visit to the Air Canada Centre this season sitting atop the East standings and Toronto just three points adrift.
Montreal has lost just four times in regulation this season, the Leafs handing them two of those defeats, including a 6-0 thumping on home ice.
Since that embarrassing beating, 'Les Habitants' have not lost in regulation running their record to 7-0-2 winning a typically ill-tempered hard-hitting affair that included a penalty shot, a game misconduct and the usual trash-talking.
"Growing up I watched these games all the time so I was quite familiar with the rivalry," Toronto's leading scorer Nazem Kadri told Reuters.
"Now playing in them it seems like a whole different rivalry, you really don't understand the intensity of the these games when you are just watching them on the TV."
Two of the NHL's Original Six franchises, the Canadiens-Leafs history stretches back to the founding of the league in 1917 but the roots of the rivalry run much deeper to the birth of a country divided by language and culture.
For a hockey mad nation the loyalties were as clearly defined as Quebec-Ontario provincial border, French-speaking Canadians on one side, English on the other.
With expansion and the addition of five more Canadian teams, the Montreal-Toronto rivalry no longer dominates the national hockey conversation but the competition between the two cities remains a fiery as ever.
The first NHL franchise valued at over $1 billion, Toronto considers itself the centre of the hockey universe while Montreal believes it represents the game's heart and soul.
The money spinning Leafs reflect Toronto's status as Canada's economic engine while Montrealers see themselves as hockey artists.
"We have a history that goes way back, there is always a little extra energy, buzz in building when we play each other," said Toronto defenseman Mike Komisarek, who has experienced the rivalry from both sides of the street having spent six seasons in a Montreal uniform before signing with the Maple Leafs in 2009.
"You can feel it in the warm-up; you can feel it during for the anthem.
"As a player you dream about playing on this type of stage, it's a great rivalry and as much fun it is for the fans the guys love playing it." (Editing by Patrick Johnston)