The COVID-shortened season finally got underway in mid-January as two of the most highly-touted teams in the newly formed North Division squared off as the improved Habs faced the veteran Toronto Maple Leafs. The Habs ultimately squandered a lead and fell in overtime to the Leafs, but this 5-4 loss remained filled with more positives than negatives as we saw some important players get off to excellent starts that promise to cost the players who perhaps struggled in this opener if they don’t quickly turn it around. Of the four players making their Habs debut, Alexander Romanov and Josh Anderson were absolutely excellent. Tyler Toffoli was quite good and Joel Edmundson struggled. Before rushing to conclusions though, remember that Ben Chiarot also struggled for 8-10 games last season before finding his stride and vaulting up the team’s depth chart. The goaltending match-up was the expected Carey Price versus Frederik Andersen but both were rather average in their season debuts.
The game’s first few minutes were relatively quiet until Price was called upon to make an excellent save on a cross-ice pass to Marner only three minutes into the game. A strong shift by Jesperi Kotkaniemi forced Zach Bogosian to take a penalty. The Habs power play went to work and though they didn’t score, they did register four shots on net. The Leafs took a second penalty, this time for too many men, and this time the Habs made them pay. Jonathan Drouin tipped a Jeff Petry point shot that hit the post. The rebound found Nick Suzuki who managed a tough angle to put home the season’s first goal.
Play settled down in the second half of the period until the two teams exchanged goals in the final four minutes. First, it was William Nylander scoring from the top of the offensive zone after a faceoff win on a clapper that had eyes as it went through three Habs players blocking Price’s view to tie the game. The Habs regained the lead three minutes later when Josh Anderson took advantage of a faceoff win by Suzuki and a nice pass by Drouin to fire it home from the slot with 24 seconds left in the period.
With the exception of the first shift where the Leafs hemmed the Weber-Chiarot pairing in the defensive zone, the open half of the period was all Montreal as they led 7-2 in shots at the ten-minute mark. The constant pressure from the Habs caused Zach Bogosian to take a holding minor (an obvious make-up call for the missed high stick on Phillip Danault the previous shift) at the 7:39 mark. The Habs didn’t do much on their man advantage until there were 15 seconds left and Romanov completed a Markov-esque long bomb that sent Tomas Tatar in alone. Tatar beat Andersen through the legs to extend the lead just before the midway point of the period.
The second half of the period started with some fireworks as Wayne Simmonds threw some fists alongside Ben Chiarot. If Chiarot showed great judgement on fight timing last year, this one was questionable, made worse by the fact that Simmonds got the better of him. To make matters worse, Brett Kulak took a cross-checking penalty on the play. The Habs killed the penalty, but then committed the cardinal sin with a two-goal lead as they stopped attacking the play. They sat back and appeared ready to defend the lead for 30 minutes.
With 3:56 left in the period, Anderson was called for boarding (this one appeared so soft to me). The Leafs jumped on the occasion as Nylander scored after Edmundson was left without a stick when he took Zach Hyman out from in front of Price. Suzuki then took a holding penalty on the next shift and he was joined three seconds later as Weber cleared the puck over the glass. The Leafs have too much skill to be given a 5-on-3. John Tavares made them pay as he tied the game with a nice tip as demons from last season appeared with the Habs surrendering two goals in the last two minutes and were back to square one heading to the third period.
A minute into the third period, Edmundson and Drouin teamed up for an excellent breakout that sent Anderson off to the races. Anderson took advantage of finding a forward playing back; he used his size, protected the puck and got around Tavares before he tucked a shot under Andersen’s shoulder to restore the Montreal lead. This time the Habs continued to attack the play, but Andersen stood tall and kept the Leafs within striking distance. A team with the talent of the Leafs asked for nothing else and made sure to take advantage of the help provided by their goaltender. With 9:27 to play, Drouin’s attempt to clear the zone bounced directly off the official giving the Leafs a 2-on-0 on an unsuspecting Price. It was likely the easiest goal of Jimmy Vesey’s career, but nevertheless, the game was once again even.
Brendan Gallagher and Matthews exchanged some goalposts on the next shift before Toffoli almost broke the tie on a nice pass down low by Kotkaniemi. After this, played slowed as both teams appeared content to get to overtime and earn the point in their season opener. Once the overtime began, all hell broke loose as both teams opened it up and both teams missed a long list of chances as all of Nylander, Danault, Suzuki, Alex Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, Tavares, and Toffoli all had excellent looks before a terrible line change by Paul Byron opened up a lane for Morgan Rielly to join the rush and end the game on a cross-ice pass.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Nick Suzuki
Many will prefer Drouin in this spot and I think Drouin was great, but Suzuki is simply on another level. Used in all situations, Suzuki has a magnet on his stick with the puck attracted to it. He’s the player that makes those around him better. He’s sneaky good and always in the right spot to make excellent defensive and offensive plays. Perhaps the best example of this was his pick-off followed by a toe-drag five minutes into the third period; it was simply ridiculous and should have led to a Leafs penalty. What an absolute treat to watch this player on most nights.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 6 shots, 18:38 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jonathan Drouin
In this one, we saw the Jonathan Drouin that began the 19-20 season. He was creative with the puck, shifty to get to the puck, and was willing to get physical to take it away from the opposition. This time, he gets to do show his stuff on a top line with top-line calibre talent surrounding him. It showed as Drouin was given more space and was able to create with it. The only question that remains is if he can do it regularly and remain healthy so that this line can give the other two lines more offensive space.
Stats: 3 assists, +1, 1 shot, 17:36 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Josh Anderson
I guess the first line experiment was a success on this first night. Anderson was the perfect complement to this line. Big, fast, physical and a shoot-first player, Anderson is without a doubt a perfect fit for his latest ‘powerhorse’ nickname. The shoot-first element was likely the most overlooked aspect to Anderson this preseason, but his seven shots ON NET are likely one of the stats that endear his play to this writer immediately as this is exactly what Drouin and Suzuki need with them for defenders to need to give them space.
Stats: 2 goals, +1, 7 shots, 3 hits, 18:02 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Alexander Romanov
I was likely to include Romanov somewhere in this space solely based on it being his first NHL game. I really didn’t need the preferential treatment. That Romanov isn’t in the top-3 is more caused by the outstanding game by the top line than because Romanov didn’t deserve to be there. In his NHL debut, he played over 20 minutes, more than Edmundson for those wondering how long he’ll stay down on the third pairing. Nothing was more telling than Romanov getting the shift instead of Edmundson in the final minute of the third period in a tie game next to Petry. His poise was on full display, as was his confidence. If he keeps up the pace we saw in this one, Romanov is in the top-4 by the tenth game this season. Now the question that kills, will Habs fans be ready to live with the growing pains that will come with that reality because despite all the positives, there were a few adventurous shifts for the youngster, these will happen, and we’ll have to accept those growth moments.
Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 1 hits, 21:51 T.O.I.