After a Canadiens win to open the first-round playoff series, the pressure barometer had league-high readings for the 2021 edition of the Maple Leafs, the best hockey team Toronto has seen in decades. Which team would be able to better adjust to secure the win in the second game?
John Tavares — the Maple Leafs’ captain, with over 800 NHL points to his name — and Jake Evans may not often be spoken in the same breath. But in the first game of the Leafs-Canadiens series both were injured, Tavares in a freak accidental impact with Corey Perry’s knee while Evans took a Shea Weber slapshot off his hand.
So, both teams had to shuffle their lineups to fill in a hole at centre. Toronto moved Nick Foligno to the middle to take Tavares’ spot while Dominique Ducharme brought in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had sat out the first game.
First blood, and then some
The action was heavy from the start. After being outhit more than two to one in the first game of the series, Toronto’s players had heard the message and bodies were flying from the first shift on.
The best early chance was for the Leafs, as Foligno’s shot dribbled through Carey Price’s equipment and behind him. If not for the quick clearing action by Ben Chiarot, it would have been an early advantage for the Leafs.
However, just four minutes later, the Habs drew first blood. With Toronto hemmed in their own end, the makeshift line of Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia, and Tyler Toffoli were applying heavy pressure in front of Jack Campbell’s goal, and it paid off with the first goal, as Campbell gave up a rebound on Armia’s weak shot and Kotkaniemi tapped it in.
That did not demoralize the Leafs, though, and they pressured the Habs repeatedly, though not able to generate the same level of net-front activity.
This paid off around the 12-minute mark as Eric Staal, Artturi Lehkonen, and Paul Byron were unable to clear the puck. It eventually came to Jason Spezza who found a small gap between Price’s glove and the post to pull the Leafs back to even with the Habs.
The Habs had a chance to go back in front as Jeff Petry’s one-timer slapshot made it through traffic and dropped in front of Campbell, but Artturi Lehkonen was unable to control the bouncing puck.
Zach Hyman was called for holding on a streaking Phillip Danault with some three minutes on the clock to grant the game’s first man advantage to the visitors. The Habs’ power play unit had good control of the play but neither one of the two shots was particularly dangerous.
The hitting was heavy in the first, with the Habs particularly aggressive on the forecheck, and, after the first period, it was clearly still anyone’s game.
Taking advantage of a second chance
After a back-and-forth start to the second period, the Lehkonen-Staal-Byron unit was playing well and got another chance after Lehkonen hustled from his own zone to the Leafs’ end to ward off an icing call. However, it was for nought as the boys from Toronto broke out on an off-man rush.
With Jon Merrill caught behind, Byron and Weber had to deal with the attack, and Auston Matthews beat Weber to the rebound from the Justin Holl shot and put it behind Price for Toronto’s first lead of the series.
The Habs had to kill off consecutive penalties to Brendan Gallagher and to Lehkonen just before the middle of the period. The pressure was heavy and Price had to stop eight shots, but the Leafs still came up empty-handed.
However, a much less dangerous-looking power play after a cross-checking call on Kotkaniemi resulted in a Toronto power play goal, with Rasmus Sandin shooting from near the blue line to find the opening under Carey Price’s arm and put the Leafs up 3-1.
Ducharme used a coach’s challenge on this, arguing goaltender interference, but there was little enough of that for the challenge to be accepted, with only a weak tap by Wayne Simmonds on Price’s pads just as the puck was going in.
Yet another Maple Leafs power play it was, then. This time the Habs’ penalty killers did not allow the Toronto squad to properly set up their power play and the two minutes expired without a shot on net.
The Leafs let up on their hitting in the second, with only seven to the Habs’ 16, but made up for it by largely controlling the play and not giving up a single high-danger scoring chance — not that eight minutes of power play time hurt, either.
The end result, then, was a lopsided 20-6 edge on shots and two unanswered goals, leaving a steep hill for the Canadiens to climb in the third period.
Third time is not the charm, either
Ducharme had set his line blender on “Hi” during the intermission and the line combinations early on in the third ranged from normal to, uh, interesting.
The Habs did seem re-energized for the final period but ended up on a penalty kill yet again as the referees seemed to only have eyes for the players in white sweaters, and Weber was sent off for cross-checking.
As the Leafs got set up, Matthews quickly took a hard shot that glanced off the post and onto William Nylander’s stick. Price slid across to block the bottom of his net and kicked up his upper pad, but Nylander made no mistake with his shot and found the top of the net to put the game seemingly out of reach with eleven minutes left.
In desperation, Ducharme pulled Price for an extra forward with more than six minutes still remaining on the clock. Given Campbell’s play through the first two games, though, it felt like he was doing this for a psychological impact in the next game rather than any realistic hope of taking the game to overtime.
Finally, five minutes later, Alexander Kerfoot broke out to centre ice and made it a four-goal lead, finally putting the Canadiens out of their misery.
With Byron off for yet another Leafs power play in the final minute, Simmonds was not called, either, as he gave Edmundson a two-handed slash after a faceoff to the left of Price. After the first period, the Habs could not beg, borrow or buy a power play, no matter what the opposing team’s infraction was.
What was the difference?
The Habs came out hard for this game, just like they had done for the first, but after the first period things simply fell apart. Take away the two power play goals and the empty-netter and focus on five-on-five play, and the score was far closer, but it was still clearly a Leafs win.
Montreal has to find a way to beat Campbell more often, and that may mean that we will see more lineup changes in Game 3.
HW Habs 3 Stars
First Star: Jesperi Kotkaniemi – Kotkaniemi scored the Habs’ only goal and was full of energy throughout the game, using his body to dish out hits — and take them as well. Six-for-eleven in the faceoff circle was respectable on a night when no other Montreal centre could even get to 40%. Better yet, a 6-2 edge in shots while he was on the ice was the best on the team.
Stats: 1 goal, +0, 2 shots, 2 hits, 12:50 T.O.I.
Second Star: Artturi Lehkonen – Lehkonen was a defensive beast in the game, beating Leafs defenders to prevent an icing call, throwing checks, and clearing pucks on the penalty kills. Without Lehkonen, the penalty kill results would have been much worse yet.
Stats: -2, 2 shots, 4 hits, 2 blocks, 15:17 T.O.I.
Third Star: Joel Edmundson – Edmundson was a rock on defence, the best of the defenders for the night, and it showed in the time he spent on the ice. With him on the ice, the Habs were able to outshoot the Leafs, and that was no minor feat on the night.
Stats: +0, 1 shot, 2 hits, 22:35 T.O.I.