Against all odds, Monday night offered a special occasion for hockey fans around the world. A Game 7 is already filled with excitement and suspense. On this night, Game 7 featured two of the most historic franchises in the NHL, one with a team built to win and the other carrying all the momentum in this one-game ultimate showdown. The determination of the Habs to even get it this far was remarkable, and they were certainly playing with house money as opposed to their opponents who had all the pressure squarely on their shoulders to come out on top.
Carey Price faced Jack Campbell as expected between the pipes, and coach Dominique Ducharme opted for no changes to his roster. The Leafs came out and looked like a team filled to the brim with pressure as they tried to do too much, consistently making the extra pass and overplaying their defensive responsibilities. The result was a shocking 3-1 Montreal win which means the Habs will take on the Jets starting Wednesday.
The game started with both teams flying as expected. The Leafs mostly controlled the play early but their time with the puck in the offensive zone didn’t seem threatening. Meanwhile, the Habs seemed determined and bought in that the road to victory was by driving the net and making Campbell’s life difficult. The teams exchanged some mediocre chances before a shot from the outside was deflected by Jesperi Kotkaniemi and bounced off a few Leaf defenders in the first sign of Campbell fighting the puck.
One immediate and noticeable change was on the blue line as the Habs were playing Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson, just not together as Ducharme appeared to be rotating four defenders on the left with Weber and Petry on the right. It was a good strategy because Gustafsson and Kulak played quite well in the first period.
The second half of the period saw the Habs quickly catching on that Campbell was fighting it as they fired everything toward the net and rebounds were available everywhere. The first great scoring chance of the game came on a 2-on-1 where Paul Byron was forced to saucer a pass over to Josh Anderson who couldn’t get a handle on a bouncing puck and ended up losing control.
Toronto’s best chance of the period came in the final minute as Marner got free, but he missed the net, so the period ended goalless. That’s when one stat really stuck out to me as a bad sign for the Leafs. They clearly outhit the Canadiens in the first period. However, I’ve been calling a resemblance all series long between this one and the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, where the Canucks were the better team but got sucked into trying to beat the Bruins playing Boston’s style of game. That stat brought back that comparison for me. Outhitting the Habs was not at all Toronto’s winning strategy for this game.
The second period offered some really bad play by both teams as neither team was able to really get anything done further than the neutral zone. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe panicked in this moment and did the worst thing he could possibly do. The Matthews-Marner tandem hadn’t solved the Danault line all series. The logical way around it would have been to separate the two stars, especially considering the absence of John Tavares. Instead, Keefe replaced Zach Hyman for a few shifts with Nylander. It made no sense to replace the only guy capable of creating space with another softer player.
Finally, 3:02 into the period, Eric Staal took advantage of a neutral zone give-away to find a streaking Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher was well covered by Zach Bogosian who even managed to stay out of Campbell’s way. Gallagher fired a shot and it beat Campbell five-hole. It was a soft goal at a terrible time for it to happen.
The Leafs did push back immediately but they once again were met with Price who made a great save on Hyman and then a few more good stops for good measure. Right before the midway point of the period, Campbell gave the puck away behind his net but was lucky Anderson missed the near-empty net. Then it was the Habs who got lucky as Staal was guilty of an infraction that went uncalled (there were some of those for both teams all game, but this one was quite obvious).
The second half of the game started with a 2-on-1 where Auston Matthews finally beat Price. However, he did not beat the post and the Habs kept the lead. This was important as shortly after, Cole Caufield got a little shifty down low and the result was a penalty against Pierre Engvall. Engvall was trying so hard to toe that line and get under the Habs’ skin all night, but he crossed the line on that one.
The power play wasted little time. With 4:35 left in the period, Nick Suzuki got time and space after good puck movement from Gustafsson. He released the wrist shot from his now patented spot and it deflected off Corey Perry who was in his office screening Campbell to extend the lead to 2-0. The Leafs spent the rest of the period in the Montreal zone, with Joel Armia slew footing Travis Dermott in the dying moments which meant the Leafs would start the third on the man advantage.
The Leafs got a good chance on the first rush of their power play to kick off the third, but it was the only chance it would get as a monstrous effort from Jake Evans almost led to a shorthanded goal.
The Habs were then sitting back, but the Leafs were in a clear state of shock and panic as their execution was completely shot as passes missed all over the ice. They finally got a good chance with 12 minutes to play as a terrible Ben Chiarot giveaway led to a 2-on-1. Shea Weber wisely covered Matthews and allowed Price to make another great save on Hyman.
The final ten minutes of regulation started with another Price beauty, this time on Morgan Rielly. With 8:40 to go, Weber was called for interference. Considering what had been allowed for both teams up that point, it was an atrocious call and one that would have been a travesty if scored upon. Luckily for the officials, Phillip Danault, Armia, and of course Price, came to the rescue and kept the Leafs off the board.
The Leafs continued to press and even pulled Campbell with a whopping 3:30 to play. Almost a minute later, at the 2:38 mark, Staal won another physical battle in the defensive zone and he found Tyler Toffoli who buried an empty-netter to make it 3-0.
The Leafs continued to fight as Nylander ruined the shutout bid with 1:36 to play, but that’s all they could muster as Montreal’s $10.5M goaltender absolutely lived up to the billing in this hard-fought seven-game marathon. On to Winnipeg!
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Carey Price
What is left to say? Price is the highest-paid player on this team because he can take the team on his back and do this with it. This was his series as he completely owned Leaf shooters, even finding an extra gear after his four dominant performances. Thank you, Carey!
Stats: 30 saves, 31 shots, .968 save %, 1.00 GAA, 60:00 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Brendan Gallagher
They say big players find a way to step up in big moments. Gallagher scored the first goal, blocked some shots and played his best game of the series by a mile. Lead by example? A few of those on this team in this one, none better than 11.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 4 shots, 13:33 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Corey Perry
Not always pretty, but always steps up in the big moments. That’s the only way I can think of to describe Perry’s tenure with the Canadiens, and smarter people than me concur that this is the very definition of his career. What it means to this team to have a heart and soul player with enough skill to make himself so important to this team all year long. I’ve said it before this series, and I want to reiterate it again. Sign this man to another one-year deal. Please!
Stats: 1 goal, 1 shot, 9:22 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Eric Staal
Mea culpa here. I didn’t want him playing Game 1. I didn’t think he deserved a spot on the roster, and I would have happily taken Tomas Tatar over Staal before this game started. Staal’s quiet contribution is often winning physical defensive zone battles to get out of the zone. This is important considering the lack of mobility on the blueline, but it’s not always obvious due to Staal’s own lack of mobility this late in his career. Well, it was one of those that allowed him to send Gallagher away for the team’s first. It was another that allowed him to find Toffoli in what turned out to be such an important empty-netter considering the Leafs did score after it. In his case, I’d rather not see him back next year, but absolutely thrilled with his overall contribution to this series.
Stats: 2 assists, +1, 10:37 T.O.I.