Wednesday’s night rematch between the Habs and Leafs included much more NHL players. While many pundits predicted a revenge victory for John Tavares and the Buds, it was clear that the Habs were going to give them all they could handle when considering this remained a preseason game for the Leafs. What I mean is that a quick look at the Habs roster and one understood that a handful of NHL hopefuls were fighting for their jobs in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Michael Chaput, Jordie Benn, Jacob de la Rose, Nikita Scherbak and Kenny Agostino. The goaltending matchup featured Carey Price vs. Frederik Andersen. In the end, the Leafs did come out on top, but the 5-3 outcome was a strong showing for the Habs as they spent much of the game with a lead until some bad bounces really changed the outcome at the start of the third period.
The opening moments of this contest looked like a continuation of Monday as the play was exclusively in front of Andersen. With two minutes expired, the Leafs attempted their first shift in the Montreal zone, but Andreas Johnsson tripped Benn for the first penalty of the contest. The Habs wasted little time in making the Leafs pay as Tomas Tatar walked off the side boards and beat a screened Andersen.
As play resumed, the Leafs applied pressure which caused a poor defensive play by Scherbak. Luckily for Scherbak, Price was up to the challenge as he had to make a series of saves to bail out his winger. Fans were then treated to a full minute of the Kotkaniemi show as the youngster made a cross-ice pass to spring Jonathan Drouin on a break, followed quickly with a savvy poke-check to keep the puck in the Toronto zone, and finally a second awesome pass to Drouin whose one-timer was stopped by Andersen.
While the following ten minutes calmed down considerably, a few plays worthy of note included Scherbak failing on a few more zone clears, David Schlemko getting caught on a bad pinch, Tyler Ennis redirecting a Jake Gardiner shot on the post, and a Paul Byron penalty that came with three minutes left in the period. The Byron penalty was costly as the deadly Leafs power play picked apart the young penalty killers as Auston Matthews found Nazem Kadri in the high slot who fired one home to tie the game. Before the end of the period, Tatar was called for a high stick making the Habs shorthanded to end the period.
The Leafs opened the period on the man advantage and with less than ten seconds to go in the penalty, Mitch Marner made a cross-zone pass that eluded Byron, Tomas Plekanec, and Noah Juulsen to find Auston Matthews to fired one home to make it 2-1 Toronto.
After yet another solid shift by the Kotkaniemi-Drouin duo, Phillip Danault and Kadri were sent off for incidental minors on a collision that was deemed interference by Kadri and a high stick by Danault. Morgan Rielly quickly took another penalty for interference, but this was quickly negated by Drouin and Tatar who were both kicked out of the faceoff causing a penalty for Montreal.
With the first penalties expired, Brendan Gallagher entered the zone and gave the puck to Kotkaniemi. The young Finn appeared to have eyes in the back of his head as he located and passed the puck to a streaking Mete behind him who one-timed the puck to Gallagher who had an open net to tie the game once again.
As the second half of the period began, the pairing of Benn and Schlemko were left on the ice against Auston Matthews and a penalty to Schlemko ensued. For the first time of the night, the Habs were able to survive a Leafs power play, and this proved important as the Habs were able to control play for most of the last five minutes, ending the period still tied. With five seconds left in the period, Leivo was called for skating by Schlemko creating a Habs advantage to start the third.
The man advantage to start the period was disastrous for the Habs as Jeff Petry tipped a Price pass back into Price’s pads which was all Marner needed to steal the puck and tuck it into the open net. Merely ten seconds later, Petry was picked off at the offensive blue line which sent the Leafs in on a 2-on-1 which ended with Kapanen beating Price for a 4-2 lead with 19:40 left in the period. The Habs would get one back before the end of the power play as Mete and Kotkaniemi completed a proper zone entry before Agostino found Schlemko who slapped one home to cut the lead.
The offensive display completed, both teams played rather nervously which created some sloppy play, leading to many offsides and needless giveaways. With 13 minutes to play, Andreas Johnsson lacked discipline as he barrelled into Price creating another Habs power play. This man advantage was more conventional in that Montreal did not surrender a shorthanded goal. However, it was ineffective and never really threatened Andersen.
Immediately after the opportunity, the Habs gave one to the Leafs as they were called for too many men on the ice. For the first time in the game, the penalty kill really rose to the occasion and denied the Leafs a good look toward Price over the entire duration of the penalty. With six minutes to play, some serious confusion occurred between Mete, Juulsen, and Gallagher led to multiple chances for the Leafs which finally concluded with a Patrick Marleau goal to once again establish a two-goal cushion. This goal took the wind out of the sails of the game as the outcome seemed certain from that point on. Julien opted to pull Price with over two minutes to play, but with over a minute to play, Gallagher accidentally on purpose fell on Andersen and was awarded a deserved two-minute penalty for his efforts which ended the night.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
With every game comes a bigger test and a more dominant Kotkaniemi. On this night, not only did he negate John Tavares, he forced the all-star to play defence for most of the night. Calm, cool, and always in the right spot on the ice, his intelligence is matched only by his vision as was displayed by his assist on the Habs second goal of the night. There’s no denying that Kotkaniemi has earned a spot with the Habs for nine games. If he continues to play like this once the games count, there is no way he plays a game in another jersey this season.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 2 shots, 13:52 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Victor Mete
Mete looked bad on the last Leafs goal. Other than that, he was in control all night as he prevented many dangerous plays from coming to fruition. He was also intelligent enough to dial back on the risk-taking when facing an offensively dynamic Toronto team, signs of maturation by the young defender. How about the fact that he’s passed Julien’s test of playing him and Juulsen regularly on the penalty kill all preseason? Impressive.
Stats: 2 assists, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 21:57 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Phillip Danault
This entire line played another solid game. I wanted to insert Gallagher but his play on the last Leaf goal meant that I simply could not. Tatar was excellent in the first but somewhat disappeared afterwards. This leaves Danault, who is definitely not as noticeable as his linemates. However, he is dependable, and he makes great plays with and without the puck, and this continued tonight. Danault perfectly exemplifies what the Habs will be this season. Lack of skill and experience, tons of heart and effort.
Stats: 0 points, -1, 4 shots, 14:17 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – David Schlemko
Schlemko’s game was simple and effective on this night and likely doesn’t get a nod in a regular season game. So why does it get a mention here? If Scherbak, de la Rose, and Benn were not able to take advantage of another opportunity to show that they belonged on this team, Schlemko was strong enough to solidify his position on the third pairing to start the season. With Benn once again having a rough night, it will be interesting to see if Benn, Simon Despres, or Xavier Ouellet get the final chance to earn the seventh defenceman spot on the team on Saturday night. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them in the line up because the starting six of Petry, Alzner, Mete, Juulsen, Schlemko, and Reilly appears to be obvious at this stage.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 1 hit, 18:33 T.O.I.