The Habs kicked off the playoffs against the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night. For the first time in 42 years, this rivalry was going to be about more than geography and history as a playoff series was sure to fire things up between the two most passionate fan bases in the NHL. For this first match, the Habs opted to give the veterans a chance as they left Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield, and Alexander Romanov in the stands in favour of Eric Staal, Joel Armia, and Jon Merril. Carey Price was the starter as he faced the inexperienced Jack Campbell who was playing in his first career playoff game. Both netminders were quite good in this game, but the experience of Price won out as the Habs won the first game of the series by a 2-1 score.
The first period kicked off with plenty of physicality as the Habs wanted to hit everything that moved; the best early hit was Josh Anderson on Wayne Simmonds. The play favoured the Leafs early as they had the better scoring chances, but there were good signs from Price as he kept the game scoreless. The best early scoring chance for the Habs came from the stick of Josh Anderson after a savvy Eric Staal pass.
The second half of the period started with a scary incident as a big hit by Ben Chiarot on John Tavares turned ugly when Corey Perry contacted a vulnerable Tavares with a knee to the head which saw Tavares knocked out on the sequence. Both benches clearly showed some concern though Tavares did give a thumbs up from the stretcher on his way off the ice.
Perry’s seemingly accidental gesture got no benefit of the doubt from the Toronto bench as Nick Foligno forced him to fight on the next faceoff. Perry clearly indicated to Foligno that there was no intent and that he didn’t want to go, but Foligno would have none of it. Not sure it was necessary, but it happened.
The play clearly dropped two notches after the incident, but it was the Habs who took advantage of the slower pace as Staal delivered a second smart pass to send Anderson on a breakaway that he finally buried to open the scoring in the series.
The goal energized the Habs as they dominated the Leafs for a time before Toronto finally woke up and dominated the last four minutes of the period. This included a hooking call against Tyler Toffoli with 1:17 to play. The short power meant an accent of the final five minutes to the period that was the Carey Price show as he made two great saves on Auston Matthews as well as some help from his post on a third chance.
The second period started with the carryover advantage for Toronto that did nothing before Justin Holl cleared the puck over the glass which sent the Canadiens to their own power play. It got plenty of zone time but other than a missed net by Nick Suzuki, the best scoring chance was a 2-on-1 for the Leafs that was stopped by a huge back-check by Anderson.
The shift that followed the penalty saw William Nylander play very physical, win some battles, and create some momentum for the Leafs. The outcome was a point shot that hit Brett Kulak, who had lost his positioning battle against Foligno in front of the net and found an unchecked Nylander who scored to tie the game.
The goal increased the confidence for Toronto as they started to get physical with the Habs. Montreal didn’t like that as Chiarot retaliated to a Matthews hit and took what can easily be called a stupid penalty. Luckily for him, the ensuing power play didn’t amount to much as the game hit a marked lull in the middle of the period.
The second half saw the Leafs really take it to the Habs but Price looked he did in last season’s bubble as he kept the team in the game. Nick Suzuki then pulled a veteran move on Jason Spezza as he sold a hooking call that sent the Habs to a power play. The Habs got a few good chances on this man advantage, but Joel Armia was stopped after a strong play by Tomas Tatar and Campbell made a few good saves before play settled for a quiet final three minutes of the period.
The third period started with the news that Jake Evans would not return after taking a shot to the lower body with Paul Byron taking over at centre at times on the fourth line. The Habs came out strong as Staal’s intensity and Anderson’s speed once again created an opening as Anderson was stopped by Morgan Rielly as Campbell was nowhere near making the save. Three minutes into the period, it was Mitch Marner who cleared a puck directly into the stands for a second delay of game call. The power play was absolutely atrocious until the final thirty seconds when Staal settled down the puck and allowed the Habs to get some zone time.
Nylander then took the third penalty for delay of game for the Leafs. The Habs needed to make Toronto pay, but they were completely incapable of gaining the offensive zone, so the Leafs got away with it again. At the very end of the advantage, Marner and Nylander came in on a 2-on-1 only to see Price make an unbelievable save on Marner to keep the game tied.
With eight minutes to play, Tatar was called for high sticking. However, the tables turned as a strong Armia shift cleared the puck only to see Byron beat Rasmus Sandin to the loose puck. Sandin tripped Byron who would not be denied as he beat Campbell’s poke-check shorthanded from his knees to give the Habs a 2-1 lead.
With six minutes to play, Spezza was called for an offensive zone trip for the Habs fifth advantage of the evening. The Habs opted to play both Jeff Petry and Shea Weber in this situation which I think was a good idea. The unit up front of Suzuki, Toffoli, and Perry was immediately threatening though the team never scored.
This advantage was followed by a Phillip Danault tripping penalty as Toronto had another chance to even the game with three minutes to play. With one minute of the power play expired and two left on the clock, Campbell made his way to the bench for the usual Toronto two-man advantage whenever they face the Habs. This time, they hit the Price wall as he made the saves and refused to give up a rebound as the Habs hung on for a huge Game 1 win.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Carey Price
So, if the team plays Jake Allen in over 50% of the regular season games for the next few seasons, we can get this Carey Price come playoff time? Where do I sign? Price was stellar all game long, especially in the second period as he outright kept his team in the game as the talented Leafs attacked in waves and the defence was forced to bend. They didn’t break, mostly thanks to their star playing to the height of his talent in Game #1.
Stats: 35 saves, 36 shots, .972 save %, 1.00 GAA, 60:00 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Josh Anderson
Watching Anderson in his first games with the Habs, I wondered to myself if this was max-effort Anderson. In this one, he showed that he has yet another gear to hit as he was all over the ice with his physicality and speed as he scored the team’s first goal but easily could have scored two more in the first half of the game. What an effort by a player that is quickly becoming a leader alongside Gallagher and Perry for the forwards.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 4 shots, 3 hits, 14:52 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Eric Staal
For a guy who everyone including myself wanted to see scratched before this game got underway, he surely proved his coach right. He was the Habs best player in the first period before being forced to play defensive hockey for most of the second. He created a bit more offence in the third but was a force all game long. He was physical and clearly energized and focused like he hadn’t been since maybe his first game with this team.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 2 shots, 3 hits, 10:44 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Paul Byron
Byron was relatively quiet all game long, but his speed was an important asset in a key moment. That clear by Armia should have been pedestrian, but Byron was able to take advantage of a young unsuspecting defender in Sandin to get his team the lead and eventually the win.
Stats: 1 goal, 2 shots, 7 hits, 13:23 T.O.I.