It was the first preseason game of the year for both teams, and it showed, but probably even more so for the Habs than for the Maple Leafs. Basically, it was the Habs’ “Group B” taking the ice, with Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield the only unit intact from the end of the previous season. Their full lineup was as follows:
Toffoli – Suzuki – Caufield
Lehkonen – Poehling – Dauphin
Perreault – Paquette – Belzile
Baddock – Beaudin – Vejdemo
Romanov – Petry
Kulak – Fairbrother
Ouellet – Xhekaj
First, We Should Be Able to Make a Pass
Given that, maybe it should not be a surprise that the first period reminded me of nothing so much as a five-year-olds’ soccer game, with everyone chasing the puck but with few passes being completed, and even those apparently by sheer luck rather than any intent.
The Canadiens were gifted with an early opportunity as Rasmus Sandin was called for interference on Gianni Fairbrother, but it seems that the newly-formed power play unit had trouble figuring out which end to set up in.
There was a second power play chance five minutes later after Richard Clune was sent to the box for boarding Lukas Vejdemo. For a moment it looked like the power play unit might set up, but it turned out to be just a mirage as the passes simply didn’t connect.
So, it should not come as a surprise that the Leafs scored first, just after the midway point of the period. William Nylander, who had already had several looks on Cayden Primeau earlier, hung on to the puck to the left of Primeau, and as the red sweaters clustered in front of the goal, passed it onto the stick of Jake Muzzin coming in behind the play. Muzzin was wide open and made no mistake in lifting the puck past Primeau for the first (preseason) goal of the season.
Twice the Pain
The Leafs got their first man advantage opportunity early in the second and looked far better than the Habs had looked on theirs with much less fumbling around with blindfolds on. Nylander did the work again, his shot finding John Tavares in front of the net, and Primeau was helpless as the Leafs’ captain redirected it past him.
Brandon Baddock started a fight a little after that, but the only impact from that was with Baddock getting a misconduct (in addition to the matching majors) and the Leafs getting another power play, thanks to his instigator minor.
Michael Bunting added to the score at 7:25, one-timing the puck behind Primeau after getting a tidy pass from T.J. Brodie. As was the case with the first two goals, the Habs had left a Toronto forward unattended, and were quickly punished for it.
J-C Beaudin got on the scoresheet, too, by slashing Ilya Mikheyev at the halfway point of the game. By the time that power play was done, the shot totals were 20-5 in favour of the Leafs, with Hutchinson not having been tested with even a single shot in the second period.
With some five minutes left on the period, Caufield stole the puck at the defensive blueline and showed enough speed — not usually reckoned to be his strong suit — to get a breakaway attempt on Hutchinson, but just missed the top of the net on his shot.
The Habs finally managed to move the shot clock in the second period with a minute or so left, and it was Brett Kulak that finally put the puck on net, first with a wrister and then following it up with a wraparound attempt. A legitimate scoring chance, finally, but too little, too late for the period as the Habs returned to the change room down by three goals.
Third is What Matters?
The Habs got a stronger start to the third period with some sustained pressure in the offensive zone. Toffoli, in particular, got the puck to Caufield for a beautiful scoring chance from the circle, but Ian Scott, taking over for Hutchinson for the final period, was able to move across to block the shot.
Ryan Poehling got his own breakaway chance early on as well but had to take the pass on his backhand and could not get control of the puck to get a proper shot on Hutchinson who came back in after Scott left just past the four-minute mark. Still, seven minutes into the period, the bleu-blanc-et-rouge had already managed five shots, as compared to seven in the first forty minutes of the game.
McNiven got his first serious test just before the ten-minute mark, as Josh Ho-Sang took a quick pass and broke free across the Habs’ blue line. McNiven gave him no real chance, though.
All the good work in the third period looked to be for naught, though, as the first goal once again came from the team in blue. A long shot into Montreal’s zone was handled by McNiven but the clearing shot was knocked down by Kurtis Gabriel and he was able to put the puck past the out-of-position McNiven.
It took 58 minutes, but Toffoli finally put the Habs on the board after taking a clean stretch pass from Alexander Romanov that was deftly touched on by Suzuki. Toffoli hustled hard and lifted the puck over Hutchinson’s pad for a season-opening Habs goal.
Ilya Mikheyev had another breakaway chance in the final minute, but McNiven blocked that one, although tryout prospect Arber Xhekaj took a late penalty on the play.
There was a bonus shootout at the end of the game, regardless of the score. McNiven saved two of four for the Habs, with Nylander and Mikheyev beating him, but only Caufield was able to put the puck behind Hutchinson, as Toffoli, Suzuki, and Perreault all fell short on that count.
That was it for the first of the year, and it can only get better from here.
HW Habs 3 Stars
First Star: Cayden Primeau (21 shots, 3 goals, .857) was instrumental in keeping the score respectable in the first 30 minutes of the game, given the chaos in front of his net. He can scarcely be held responsible for the three goals scored by the Leafs and he made some strong saves to keep the score respectable.
Second Star: Cole Caufield (0g, 0a, -1) showed what he was capable of in splashes of brilliance, with several solid scoring chances, including the second-period breakaway, and was the only Hab to score in the shootout. The Toffoli-Suzuki-Caufield chemistry was not often in evidence, though, and he was on the ice for two Toronto goals. Star-worthy nevertheless.
Third Star: Tyler Toffoli (1g, 0a, -1) demonstrated that he still has a shot to beat goalies, with the Habs’ sole marker in the dying minutes of the game. Did not really get the tic-tac-toe plays going with Suzuki and Caufield until the third, though.