In this first preseason game that featured a near-complete roster, many unproven players were the ones who took advantage to get some positive attention from the coaching staff. Victor Mete and Jacob de la Rose looked particularly strong on this night, as they continue to try to prove that they belong on this roster come next week. However, the outcome on this night was like the rest of the preseason as surprise starter Al Montoya proved to be an insufficient challenge for Auston Matthews as the promising Leafs took down the Canadiens by a score of 5-1.
Montoya was a surprise starter because Charlie Lindgren injured himself during the pre-game skate. On an emergency basis, Montreal had Jake Hildebrand on the bench as Al Montoya’s backup. Hildebrand played last season, his first pro campaign, in the ECHL. In 47 games, he posted a .899 save percentage and 3.75 GAA. He happened to be in Toronto for the game since he’s actually trying to earn a spot on the Toronto Marlies. Despite all the negativity surrounding the outcome, many would suggest that Montreal deserved better on this night, as they mostly outplayed the Leafs, but the all too familiar story of not being able to finish reared its ugly head for the first time of the season.
In the very first minute of play, Auston Matthews released a shot from the blue line that fooled Montoya. It was an ugly goal, one that Montoya surely would like to have back. A positive note here as the early goal was not able to deter the energy level from a hungry Habs squad that really took it to the Leafs for the better part of the opening ten minutes of play. Ales Hemsky showed that he still has some wheels and lured Nikita Zaitsev into a two-minute minor. The ensuing power play looked quite dangerous with its four-forward strategy as Tomas Plekanec hit the post after a nice Max Pacioretty rush. Alex Galchenyuk also showed some nifty stick-handling as he created a few chances on the second wave of the same man-advantage.
Unfortunately, the Habs were unable to keep that momentum as Torrey Mitchell threw a head-scratching blind pass up the middle of the defensive zone, and Auston Matthews made him pay by mocking Karl Alzner before putting home his own rebound. Montreal would be given a second power play and would once again look dangerous. Hemsky, Pacioretty, and Shea Weber controlled the play which resulted in Pacioretty finding iron with a rocket wrist shot. Once the power play ended, de la Rose completed an impressive no-look between the legs pass to Paul Byron who hit the Canadiens third post of the period. Positively noteworthy this period were Mete, de la Rose, and Galchenyuk, the latter two mostly for their improved effort over their latest games. Negatively, the finger-pointing must be thrown in the direction of Montoya and Mitchell.
To start the second period, the speed of the Maple Leafs overcame the Montreal defencemen who really appeared overwhelmed. The Alzner-Petry pairing was particularly victimized as they appeared to be a step behind in their decision-making. It was not surprising then that this pairing was on the ice for the third Leaf goal, as Patrick Marleau found a near open cage with Montoya completely out of position. This goal appeared to stun the Canadiens who were really on the defensive side of the puck for the first ten minutes of the period. Near the midway point of the frame, the fourth line of the Canadiens decided to get things going. Momentum was created and moments later, Charles Hudon drew Zaitsev’s second penalty of the night. Even though the man-advantage struggled to gain the zone, they created some good chances once they got in. With the second unit on the ice, Galchenyuk’s hard battles along the boards finally got the puck out to the top where Mete faked a shot before finding Petry for the one-timer which finally put the Habs on the board. Byron, Mete, and de la Rose continued their excellent night while Alzner and Petry struggled for the first half of the period.
The third started with the Canadiens holding the momentum creating the illusion that a comeback was possible. Roughly five minutes into the frame, Jordie Benn juggled the puck and Brandon Davidson decided that supporting his partner was not necessary. The outcome was allowing Matthews to break away and squeeze another weak goal five-hole on Montoya. If Julien looked smart for his support of Davidson for much of the night, the third period really made Davidson look like his position is not in the top-six defenders of this team. Only a few minutes later, Byron Froese took a slashing call that would prove to be costly as William Nylander got way too much time to pick his corner and bury the Canadiens for good. Hudon, Mete, and Galchenyuk continued to look good, while Benn and Davidson looked like the proverbial deer in the highlights for most of this period.
HW Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star: Victor Mete – While it is true that playing alongside Shea Weber will make many defenders look good, Mete is surpassing even those expectations. He continues to impress next to Weber and to make the plays that will keep him in that role. Perhaps the glaring need for offensive defencemen is the main reason for Mete standing out as much as he has this camp. In the end, full marks to the kid for taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him. It is already hard to imagine Mete starting the season elsewhere than on the left of Weber. How long he can prolong his tenure there is what will be truly interesting once the season begins.
2nd Star: Jacob de la Rose – The potential fourth line centre had a jump in his step on this night. He was sound defensively while creating a few interesting scoring chances in front of Andersen. With the night Mitchell had, the idea of having a battle between the two pivots returned to the realm of reality after this night.
3rd Star: Alex Galchenyuk – The new team whipping boy came out strong and showed everyone that he’s still worth the price of admission. He was dangerous all night long and could have easily put up some points if he could concentrate and hit the net. Here’s hoping this is a detail to his game that will be rectified once he puts a few on the board and finds some confidence.
Honourable Mention: Tomas Plekanec – Last year’s victim of the fan base’s wrath has looked excellent throughout camp and tonight was no different. He was involved and responsible, creating space for his two young linemates. The line was slightly less dominant facing NHL-calibre opposition, yet still exited the night spending more time in the offensive zone and with a few quality scoring chances. There is no doubt that Hudon will be the trigger-man on the line, though Plekanec remains the conscience on the line that allows the kids to get creative in the offensive zone.