The Habs hit the ice on Saturday night looking to regain some confidence heading into a week off after some lacklustre play for most of the week. This would be a tough task as they faced the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs.
The goaltending matchup featured Carey Price and Frederik Andersen, as expected. Claude Julien made some bold moves for the game. The first, perhaps less bold move, saw Victor Mete replace Brett Kulak on the third defensive pairing. The bolder move saw Corey Perry return to the lineup next to Jake Evans and Paul Byron. For those thinking Artturi Lehkonen was scratched, this was not the case. Lehkonen moved to the third line with Joel Armia and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. This meant that Tomas Tatar was a healthy scratch. I admit to not really understanding this move as Tatar wasn’t at his best recently, but he certainly was not the worst Habs player over the last week. Strange move that paid off as the Habs won a game they likely did not deserve as they snuck out a 2-1 win to head into their week on a high.
The entire opening period completely belonged to the Maple Leafs. In the first two minutes, the Leafs had some slot chances that Price had to turn aside. The pairing of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot were repeatedly exposed by Toronto’s speed, a common theme for much of the night.
Four minutes into the period, Phillip Danault was ultra-soft recovering a puck in his defensive zone. Danault’s pocket was picked by Auston Matthews and this error was compounded by both Chiarot and Weber being out of position. Matthews found Mitch Marner in the slot who made no mistake in opening the game’s scoring.
The Leafs continued to completely dominate the period as the Habs were leaving the slot far too open. The Nick Suzuki line was the exception as they were able to get some time in the offensive zone and create offensively.
One of the most frustrating thing about the Habs in this period was their complete lack of offensive imagination and their reliance on the one play. They would go down the ice, hit the brakes, pass the puck to the point and converge to the net to try to tip one home. I think it’s a fine play, but much like their power play, it’s important to not be so predictable. It becomes easy for the opposition to defend.
With four minutes to play in the period, Tyler Toffoli was obstructed with on a forecheck and reacted badly as he committed a flagrant hold sending the Leafs to the first power play of the night. The Habs excelled on the penalty kill as they had the only scoring chance when Armia negated a 2-on-1 by trying an impossible pass instead of shooting. In the final minutes of the period, the Leafs were robbed on consecutive cross-ice one-timers as the Weber-Chiarot pairing was once again two steps behind the play. It was a play that finally got some emotional response out of Price after he made the second save.
The second period started out much like the first as the Leafs continued to dominate the flow of play with Matthews being too fast for the Chiarot and Weber pairing. The positive here was that Matthews did not score and that it was Toronto’s best chance in the period. The negative is that Montreal also did not come close to scoring in this period. Toffoli stepped up and completed a few nifty plays to get to the slot in the offensive zone. It was the first signs that the Habs were getting to the right spots on the ice and the scoreless streak may not last until the end of the night.
As the midway point of the game arrived, the Habs finally turned the table and appeared to take over the game. The last five minutes specifically saw the Habs apply pressure to the Leafs. Unfortunately, they continued their recent trends of over-passing and seeming surprised to see passes headed their way. The result was good play but nothing to show for it.
The Habs kept the momentum from the end of the second period and came out flying in the third as desperation finally seemed to have hit a high on the team. After a few good chances from the top unit, it was a won battle down low that created the chance to end the goalless drought. No surprise should be accompanied by the statement that it was Brendan Gallagher who beat two Leafs defenders to a dump-in. After doing so, he found Danault who made a fantastic pass to Toffoli for the one-timer home with 13:57 to play in the game.
The start of the last ten minutes saw the Habs continue to apply pressure as a Lehkonen forecheck created a rebound opportunity. It was Andersen’s best save of the night as Jesperi Kotkaniemi was frustrated on the play.
The Leafs pushed and the game finally started to resemble the first game of the year as both teams played hard, hit hard, and played excellent hockey at both ends of the ice. After a few more stops by Price, Toffoli won an offensive zone battle, sent the puck to the point where Jeff Petry quickly put it on net. Gallagher accidentally stopped the puck, but the play fooled Andersen so Gallagher quickly jumped on the loose puck to fire it home for Montreal’s first lead of the night. The Habs were under siege for the final three minutes but they played excellent defensive hockey which allowed them to skate away with a win they may not have deserved.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Carey Price
For the first 30 minutes of this game, the Habs were nowhere close to the level of play of the Leafs. Price made huge saves look mundane and kept his team in the game long enough for them to gain confidence and get their legs. Sure, he didn’t have to outright steal the game the way some claimed he needed to, he still stole that first half because there’s no game to come back and win without Price’s first half.
Stats: 21 saves, 22 shots against, .955 save %, 60:00 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Tyler Toffoli
Like many a streaky scorer before him, Toffoli’s play was suddenly on a different level on this night (and I say this while claiming that he was one of the players that was still playing well during the losing streak). It appeared evident from the get-go that he was scoring in this game. No surprise then when the hockey gods rewarded him with the goal that ended a bad scoreless sequence for the team. That he then followed it up by winning the battle that led to the game-winner was even sweeter for the best UFA signing of the offseason in the entire NHL.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 3 shots, 3 hits, 17:28 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Brendan Gallagher
Gallagher claimed before the game that Montreal needed to get to the front of the net. Ironically, it was a board play by Gallagher that led to the getting the Habs on the board. But Gallagher, to the surprise of no one, made sure his play followed his mouth as he scored the game-winner from his office. Gallagher was definitely not one of the better playing Habs over the recent bad play, so seeing the heart and soul of this offence really get on his horse for the final two periods of this game was reassuring for sure.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 5 shots, 1 hit, 15:02 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Victor Mete
Before commenting on Mete, it needs to be said that the entire top line was not mentioned here but deserves to be. Easy to cast aside the three players that have been regularly positives over a stretch of bad play, but let’s not forget that they did not stop playing well on this night. Now, for Mete, I have to admit that I like him as the seventh defenceman on this roster. On this night, his presence seemed to calm young Romanov. In addition, Mete was a steady force on the breakout as he completed crisp and accurate passes for the entire 60 minutes. Mete is still in trouble when playing in his defensive zone, but on this night, he was able to play to his forces and he played a really strong game. Unfortunately for Brett Kulak, who’s been struggling lately, Mete’s game on this night likely means that Kulak will be back in the press box next Saturday.
Stats: 2 hits, 13:51 T.O.I.