With a 3-1 preseason record, the Habs took to the ice Monday to try to improve that record against the highly skilled Toronto Maple Leafs. The game promised the chance to evaluate many up and coming players as neither team dressed important veterans for this one. For fans on the Montreal side, this meant another opportunity to evaluate players having excellent camps such as Matthew Peca, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Michael Chaput, and Xavier Ouellet. It was also a chance for players such as Jacob de la Rose, Nikita Scherbak, Nick Suzuki, and Simon Despres to show a bit more of what they are capable of.
While Suzuki and Scherbak had much better games, Kotkaniemi and Ouellet really stole the show and once again placed pressure on some veterans of the roster to up their play between now and the end of the preseason. Between the pipes, Antti Niemi was taking on Garrett Sparks and this was perhaps the mismatch that proved to be the difference. Niemi made some important and timely saves which allowed the Habs to skate away with a comfortable 5-1 win.
The opening five minutes was filled with disjointed play all over the ice with the Leafs being slightly more organized within their forechecking structure which allowed them the better scoring chances over that time. Niemi was forced to make a few solid stops to ensure his team was not facing an uphill battle early. Eventually, Suzuki was able to create a 2-on-1 chance with Scherbak, where he opted for the shot and rang it off the crossbar.
Byron Froese quickly negated the momentum created by Suzuki as he was called for tripping. Luckily for the Canadiens, the penalty killers held a vast experience advantage over the young Leaf power play, and so Joel Armia, Artturi Lehkonen, and Ouellet completed some good work in escaping the penalty unscathed.
With the penalty killed, the Habs started skating and the dividends were immediate. Some good forechecking by Kotkaniemi and Armia provided Kenny Agostino with a great chance that Sparks turned away. Moments later, a good forecheck by Agostino returned the favour to Kotkaniemi whose shot deflected directly to Lehkonen who deposited the puck into the empty net.
The goal whipped the Leafs back into motion as they thoroughly dominated the next portion of play, forcing Niemi to bail out his defencemen multiple times. As is often the case in these situations, the goal came at the other end. Armia finally got the Habs out of their zone and rushed up the ice. Play would come back to the point where Ouellet’s point shot beat Sparks with Chaput executing an excellent screen in front of the net.
The Leafs would worsen their situation as Martin Marincin interfered with Charles Hudon for the first Montreal power play. The man advantage was rather ineffective, and this slowed down play which led to an uneventful remainder of the period.
The second period started at 4-on-4 and the Leafs took advantage of this situation. Rinat Valiev and Simon Despres covered the same man in front of the net, allowing Kasperi Kapanen to be left alone to tap home a rebound over a sprawling Niemi to cut the lead in half in the opening minute.
The goal lifted the Leafs who once again hemmed the Canadiens into their defensive zone for most of the opening five minutes. Much like the first, this somehow resulted in a Montreal goal. A solid forecheck by Chaput opened another point shot for Ouellet who made no mistake putting home his second of the night.
Moments later, a beautiful stretch pass from Valiev found Charles Hudon who used a spin-o-rama to beat the Leaf defender and tuck home the Habs’ fourth marker by going five-hole on Sparks.
This goal was quickly followed with a Michal Moravcik invisible slashing penalty. Toronto’s power play had a difficult time getting zone time, though they were able to beat Niemi once, getting denied by the post on the Connor Carrick point shot. With the penalty expired, the Leafs continued to apply pressure, but the Habs bent without breaking as they preserved their three-goal lead.
With a bit more than five minutes to play, the line of Hudon-Peca-Lehkonen continued to look good on the ice. A dump-in by Hudon was chased by Peca. Peca won his race to the puck and was able to find Lehkonen in front of the net for a 5-1 lead.
Immediately after the goal, Froese was sent to the sin bin for his second minor of the game after he interfered rather blatantly with Sparks. Ouellet was then guilty of a rare mistake on this night as he cleared the puck into the crowd and was sent to the box for delay of game. The Leafs were unable to capitalize on their 5-on-3 opportunity, and the second period ended with the Habs firmly in control.
With a sizable lead, the Canadiens were content to play a very risk-free game in the third, and the Leafs appeared to have little motivation to attempt a comeback. This situation best explains the opening five minutes of the period and the lack of action that accompanied this segment of play. Carrick was penalized for interference early in the period, but the Montreal power play could not score, though it was effective enough to create momentum.
As the play remained in the Leaf zone, they would be called for a delay of game penalty, sending the Habs to a second consecutive man advantage. This second power play was as productive as the first, but this one failed to maintain the created momentum. With the penalties over, the Habs started to utilize the most annoying of all sporting strategies as they deployed the “defensive shell” strategy. This ultra-conservative approach worked until Hudon was caught in a knee-on-knee collision with Andreas Borgman which sent Montreal to yet another power play. This man-advantage had plenty of zone time, but once again did not overcrowd the crease, so the score remained 5-1. As the penalty expired, there were two minutes left on the clock and both teams were content to go through the motions return home with no injuries.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Xavier Ouellet
If roster spots were awarded based on merit alone, Ouellet could very well be part of the top-six come opening night. As it stands, he remains in a duel with Jordie Benn for the spot of 7th defenceman. Can Ouellet play well enough to convince Bergevin of waiving or trading Benn? Time will tell.
Stats: 2 goals, +4, 3 shots, 3 hits, 20:19 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Kotkaniemi did not play as complete a game as he did on Saturday, but a look at the scoresheet tells a different story. Moreover, Kotkaniemi remains a pivot who does not get in trouble very often on the defensive side of the puck. The more games he continues to play like this, the harder it becomes for Julien to play him anywhere other than Montreal.
Stats: 1 assist, +3, 1 shot, 15:38 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Artturi Lehkonen
Lehkonen was visible with the puck with his two goals, but he was also visible without it as he was key in killing some important penalties at the end of the first two periods. If Lehkonen can continue to play this soundly all over the ice and adds in the production we’ve seen so far, he’ll be a fan favourite and a Julien favourite in no time.
Stats: 2 goals, +1, 3 shots, 2 hits, 15:14 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Antti Niemi
Niemi had to make some important saves in the first and then prevented the Leafs from gaining momentum in the last minute of the second on the 5-on-3. The game could have been very different if Niemi allows an early goal to the Leafs who had plenty of speed that they could have been a handful if they could have built a confidence early in the game. Timely saves were not part of the 2017-2018 Canadiens, so they were welcome on this night.
Stats: 22 saves (23 shots), 0.967 save %, 1.00 GAA, 60:00 T.O.I.