The Habs returned to the Bell Centre on Wednesday night to kick off a four-game homestand against Toronto. They trailed early and never could recover, ultimately falling 4-1.
Dominique Ducharme opted to make a pair of lineup changes, one by choice and the other out of necessity. Alexander Romanov was recalled from the taxi squad, burning Montreal’s fourth and final non-emergency recall and was paired with Jon Merrill which sent Erik Gustafsson to the press box. Meanwhile, with Jonathan Drouin on LTIR for personal reasons and both Paul Byron and Tomas Tatar unavailable, Michael Frolik was recalled on an emergency basis from the taxi squad. All four forward lines changed with the team lining up as follows:
Toffoli – Suzuki – Caufield
Lehkonen – Danault – Anderson
Perry – Kotkaniemi – Armia
Frolik – Staal – Evans
Things didn’t get off to a good start for Montreal as Tyler Toffoli tripped up Alex Galchenyuk less than a minute into the game. Toronto controlled the puck off the draw, and the Habs never got control long enough to clear the zone (they had one attempt and that was it). The puck came to Morgan Reilly; he found Mitch Marner who touched it over to William Nylander who potted it past a sprawling Jake Allen to open up the scoring.
Less than a minute later, Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a brutal giveaway in the neutral zone, sending the Maple Leafs in on a three-on-one. Wayne Simmonds sent it over to Alex Kerfoot but fortunately for the Canadiens, he missed the net.
The Habs got their first chance with the man advantage just before the six-minute mark when Joe Thornton was sent off for tripping Jake Evans. Montreal got their first three shots on goal on the power play but nothing was too dangerous.
Things got worse after that as a minute after Thornton’s penalty ended, Toronto doubled their lead when Auston Matthews batted down a bouncing puck off Nick Suzuki and quickly snapped it past Allen.
Montreal bounced back well and had a couple of good chances after that. Corey Perry took advantage of a turnover in close to get a good shot off on Jack Campbell but it was turned aside. A minute later, Josh Anderson had a prime opportunity off a perfect setup from Jeff Petry but fired wide. The whole left side of the net was open although there was a defender in front but instead of trying to get it through, he tried to cross Campbell up by shooting at the spot the netminder was vacating but it wasn’t that close.
With just over four minutes left, Toronto got the last high-end attempt of the period when Nick Foligno sent in Matthews all alone on Allen. Instead of shooting, Matthews opted for the deke and Allen was able to make the save. Transition defence was a huge concern all period long which helped the Maple Leafs hold the two-goal lead after 20 minutes despite the Canadiens holding an 11-7 shot advantage.
Some sloppiness in Montreal’s defensive zone led to Jon Merrill taking a hooking penalty on Thornton early in the second period. This time wasn’t a repeat of the first as the Habs picked up a pair of shorthanded shots and limited the Leafs much more in the defensive zone.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get the Canadiens going offensively. Romanov had the puck at the point and wound up skating himself right out of a shot opportunity and Toronto came back the other way. Eventually, the puck worked its way back to the point and Jake Muzzin’s point shot hit Merrill’s stick and beat Allen to make it 3-0 at the 6:27 mark. Thornton picked up an assist on the goal, making him the seventh player in NHL history to reach 1,100 career assists.
30 seconds later, Anderson had two more good chances in close but couldn’t do anything with them. Their opportunities kept coming as Joel Armia was somehow sprung on a breakaway at the midway mark of the frame on a simple zone exit but Campbell made the glove stop. 30 seconds after that, Petry’s point shot went off Lehkonen and beat Campbell but the puck trickled just wide.
Nearly three minutes later, Allen made one of his best stops of the night, getting the blocker up on a Marner shot from the slot.
Montreal was finally able to get off the board and once again it came off of a simple zone exit. Petry skated it out and sent a pass to Suzuki who skated in with speed and was able to get one through a screen past Campbell. Toronto debated whether or not to challenge with Cole Caufield being very close to being offside and while they were allotted more time than usual by the officials (30 seconds is the rough threshold), they opted against it. The final few minutes went by with both teams getting a couple of looks but nothing dangerous and the two-goal gap remained intact after 40 minutes. Shots on goal were 13-11 in the period for the Canadiens.
The third period got off to a quiet start which was about the last thing Montreal wanted when they were looking for a quick spark. It was Toronto that got the first good chance as Nylander was stopped off the rush on the right wing.
The Habs got an opportunity with the power play while Alex Galchenyuk was called for high sticking on Kotkaniemi. Caufield fanned on his shot opportunity early on and their only real look was a Shea Weber point shot that left a mark on Campbell and not the back of the net. Evans had a good look off the rush as the power play ended, earning him a one-shift look after the commercial break on the Phillip Danault trio. It was Marner that had the best chance of that shift though as he got in behind Ben Chiarot although Chiarot did well to get back and limit Marner’s opportunity to get a prime scoring chance.
On the next shift, Allen basically put an end to the game. He went to play the puck behind the net and completely whiffed on it. Jason Spezza took advantage, throwing a centring feed to Adam Brooks who had an empty net to tap it into. Any chance Montreal had of coming back went out the window with that one.
Toronto got one more chance with the man advantage when Spezza drew a hooking call on Petry. John Tavares rang one off the post early and then was stopped on two other good looks on the shift but that was it for their chances. Tavares had another chance late in the game on a breakaway but Allen made the stop but it was all for nought at that point.
Campbell made 31 saves in the victory while Allen kicked aside 25 of 29 Toronto opportunities. The Maple Leafs won the special teams battle, going 1/3 with the man advantage while the Habs were 0/2. The early power play marker really set the Canadiens back on their heels, hardly the way they wanted to start coming off the road trip.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Nick Suzuki – Is he starting to find his offensive touch again? He had Montreal’s lone marker on a well-placed shot through a screen, giving him a three-game point streak in the process. Any sort of production from centres at this point is a welcome change of pace.
Stats: 1 goal, -2 rating, 2 shots, 6/9 faceoffs, 16:28 TOI
2nd Star: Jake Evans – He’s making it hard to take him out of the lineup. Granted, it’s probably a situation where they simply have no choice but to send him down when Byron and Tatar return but he is playing with energy and generating some chances in the offensive zone.
Stats: 0 points, 1 shot, 2 hits, 4/6 faceoffs, 12:37 TOI
3rd Star: Jake Allen – He’d have been higher had it not been for the back-breaking fourth goal. That one aside, he faced a lot of quality looks as Toronto took advantage of some breakdowns by defencemen in transition and by forwards on the cycle who weren’t covering, leaving open gaps in the slot. Allen did better than his stat line would suggest at first glance.
Stats: 4 GA on 29 shots, 4.00 GAA, .862 SV%
Honourable Mention: Jeff Petry – I didn’t like some of his coverage plays in his own end but made some things happen in transition and in the offensive zone. The Habs need more of that from him with the mobility and offensive ability for most of their other blueliners lacking most nights.
Stats: 1 assist, +1 rating, 2 PIMS, 3 shots, 21:10 TOI