When it was all said and done, Montreal’s undisciplined play between the final minutes of the second period and the beginning of the third marked the key turning point and gave the Leafs all they room they needed to win the game 6-5. Montreal failed to mount any sort of second comeback as the Leafs played a perfect defensive game and allowed Montreal only three shots in the third period.
With the Canadiens up 5-4 as the buzzer sounded to end the second period, forward Steve Begin took an untimely penalty when he got his stick up into Kyle Wellwood’s face, drawing blood. With Mike Johnson already in the box serving a tripping call assessed at 18:48, Begin would be sent off for four minutes to start the third period.
With two of Montreal’s top penalty killing forward in the box, there was little hope for the Canadiens who now had only three skaters to Toronto’s five.
Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle exchanged a number of passes before McCabe finally got a high shot off that found its way over Critobal Huet’s left shoulder to tie the game at five.
A minute later Captain Saku Koivu was called off for tripping Kyle Wellwood, a questionable call at that only passed because Koivu’s stick was in the wrong place at the wrong time. With Begin still serving the second half of his double-minor, another five-on-three situation in favor of the Leafs ensued.
This time it was Kaberle who got a shot off from the point, waiting patiently as two Toronto forwards slid in front of Huet to act as a screen. Kaberle’s shot would deflect off of Wellwood, who was credited with what proved to be the game winning goal.
It was yet another roller-coaster, heart-wrenching, and difficult game to watch. Montreal hasn’t made anything easy on them this season, and Saturday’s night against the Leafs was no different.
The Canadiens were completely out-played during the first period. The fans at the Air Canada Center were truly a sixth player for the Leafs and motivated the team on route to 23 shots in the first frame a lone. Montreal had as few as only two shots on net well into the first period, and managed only nine overall.
By 1:12 into the second period, Toronto had gained a 3-1 lead over the Habs with goals from Bates Battaglia, Nik Antropov, and Alexander Steen.
Montreal’s lone goal came in the first when Christopher Higgins broke out after fighting a Leaf along the boards at center ice. Higgins then skated his way down and undressed a defender before roofing his 21st of the season past Toronto’s netminder Andrew Raycroft. The goal, which came at 12:15 in the game, tied the game at one.
Both Steen and Antropov’s goals found their way through Huet under fluky circumstances. Even though Huet, who started his first game since February 14th, allowed six goals, he cannot be blamed for the loss. Huet kept the Habs in the game throughout and was victim of a number of odd bounces and deflections throughout the game.
Toronto’s goaltending was another story. Raycroft has not played strong at home on a number of nights this season, and it was no different against Montreal.
The 26-year-old goalie fell completely apart in the second period and allowed Habs’ Michael Ryder to score a natural hat-trick in a span of only 5:49. Ryder’s heroic play brought the Habs from a 3-1 deficit to a 4-3 lead.
The goals gave Ryder 30 on the season, the second consecutive season the 27-year-old has accomplished that feat, and the third straight season that he has scored 25 goals or more.
Head Coach Paul Maurice was quick to pull Raycroft from the net after Ryder brought the Canadiens back into the game. Jean-Sebastien Aubin entered the game for Toronto. The Montreal native has played well against the Habs in the past, bad news for the Canadiens who have always had success against Raycroft since his days in Boston.
Aubin would face only six total shots in over 32 minutes of ice time as Toronto played a sound defensive game during the second half of the game.
Higgins would bring Habs’ fans to their feet all over Montreal and elsewhere when he scored his 22nd of the season to put the Habs up 5-3. It seemed as though Montreal was writing the history of yet another comeback win on their quest for the final playoff position. However, with over 25 minutes left in the game, it was no time to raise one’s hopes too high.
The Leafs would find the back of the net on yet another fluky goal when defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo floated a shot up over two players in front of Montreal’s net. The puck would seemingly deflect off of a Montreal defender’s stick and fall in behind an unsuspecting Huet to bring Toronto within one. The rest is history.
Saku Koivu picked up three assists on Ryder’s goals, giving him 53 on the season and 75 points in 81 games this season, a career best. However, Koivu’s penalty early in the third period will surely raise some questions none-the-less.
Koivu’s output was matched by Leafs’ captain Mats Sundin. Sundin picked up three helpers on the night and two of which on Toronto’s final two goals of the game.
With the win, Toronto moves into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. However, they will have to await the outcome of tomorrow’s match between the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils before they can celebrate completely. The Isles would have to lose in regulation for Toronto to make a post-season dance with the Buffalo Sabres.
There are plenty of questions concerning the Habs as they prepare to pack their bags and head home for the summer.
For one, who will be back next season? With a number of unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market July 1st, will GM Bob Gainey decide or be able to sign any of them? Has Sheldon Souray played his last game in a Habs’ uniform? Radek Bonk? Andrei Markov? Mike Johnson?
The list goes on and continues with some players under contract for next season as well. Will Gainey be able to find a taker on Sergei Samsonov? Has the Alex Kovalev romance finally come to an end in Montreal?
Meanwhile, with so many interesting UFAs potentially hitting the market this summer, some will wonder if Gainey will succeed at luring anyone in.
The Canadiens also have a number of young players in their system that could be NHL ready come next training camp. It is quite possible that Bob Gainey decides to let some of the Habs’ free agents walk in order to open up some roster spots for those players.
Either way, with Montreal falling into ninth place and officially out of the playoffs, there will be plenty more time for Gainey to get to business and fix this team.
Considering the Habs have fallen apart in two consecutive seasons after strong starts, the team is in need of some sort of change. There will be plenty of opportunity to change the core of this club this summer, and it is almost certain that the Montreal Canadiens will be a very different team when the season starts for the 2007-’08 season.
There is still a chance to see some of your favorite Habs in action this spring. The World Championships are set to take place in a few weeks and a number of the Montreal Canadiens will likely be looked upon to join their respective countries in the quest for a gold medal.
HabsWorld will be sure to follow any players who attend the tournament in Moscow as well as any stories leading up to and past the NHL Entry Draft.
Be sure to check back from time to time for further news on your Montreal Canadiens. Thanks again for stopping by throughout the season.