As the Habs attempted to extend their first winning streak of the season to a whopping three games on Monday night, they faced the Toronto Maple Leafs which promised to be a daunting task as the Leafs sat 40 points ahead of the Habs in the standings.
With a recent surge of good play, coach Martin St. Louis opted to keep Sunday’s lineup intact with the only change coming between the pipes as Samuel Montembeault returned to the crease to face Petr Mrazek. Opposing coach Sheldon Keefe made remarks about remembering that the Habs knocked them out last season, clearly an attempt for the Leafs to avoid the trap game against a surging team sitting at the bottom of the standings. Keefe’s comments clearly did not work as Toronto came out rather flat and were further hampered by the performance of Mrazek as the Habs were successful in gaining their third consecutive win with a 5-2 victory.
The Canadiens controlled the first moments of the contest, and when the Leafs appeared poised to get their first offensive zone sequence, an errant pass by Justin Holl sent Rem Pitlick on a breakaway. Pitlick tried the same move as he did in Sunday’s shootout but lost his footing and went in dangerously into the Leafs’ netminder after a nice initial stop by Mrazek.
A few moments later, a shifty zone entry by Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki allowed them to find Jeff Petry at the point of the offensive zone. Petry attempted a pass across to Josh Anderson. That pass would bounce off a few bodies before making its way to Anderson who used his big frame to get three whacks at the puck before finally sliding it under Mrazek to open the scoring.
The goal woke up the Maple Leafs as play went end-to-end for a few moments before a Brett Kulak penalty opened the door for the Leafs. Kulak’s cross-check was warranted, but it was a dangerous sequence in front of Montembeault so it was a good penalty to take. Toronto’s dangerous man advantage went to work, putting on a clinic of what a power play should look like. The Habs hung on but survived the sequence. The Leafs gained momentum though and controlled most of the second half of the period. Montembeault made several big stops, none better than his toe-save on David Kampf after a point shot bounced off a few bodies right to Kampf in the slot.
With six minutes to play, a strong shift by the fourth line gave some breathing room to the Canadiens that turned out to be key as Holl was called for holding Caufield on the next shift. Montreal’s version of the man advantage was much less convincing than the Leafs. It was an interesting sequence nonetheless because the Habs really struggled to get settled in the offensive zone but managed some dangerous plays on the rush.
In the final minute of the period, a big defensive zone faceoff win by Suzuki allowed the Habs to clear the zone. Morgan Rielly misplayed the clear and allowed Anderson to pounce on the puck. This created a 2-on-1 as Anderson made the pass to Caufield who buried it to extend the lead and Caufield’s scoring streak since the coaching change.
The second period started with a whimper for the Maple Leafs. 40 seconds in, Gallagher won a puck battle in the defensive zone that sent Mike Hoffman out of the zone. Hoffman was one-on-one, but the defenceman gave him way too much space. Hoffman waited for help but got none, so he eventually opted for the shot. Mrazek was clearly cheating toward the non-existent pass as the Hoffman shot fooled him for a bad goal against that the Habs gladly accepted to extend the lead to 3-0.
This planted a seed of doubt in Toronto as they were suddenly passive all over the ice. The Canadiens took the game to them for much of the first half of the period without being able to bury their chances. Mrazek did get back into the game after the terrible goal as he stood on his head to keep the Leafs to within three goals, his best stop coming on Anderson who was absolutely robbed after a fantastic Caufield setup.
The second half of the game started with the Leafs gaining the offensive zone and getting some control for the first time in the period. The result of this was a Clague high-sticking penalty. The ensuing advantage was once again quite dangerous, but excellent play by Petry and Ben Chiarot, as well as excellent saves by Montembeault, kept the Leafs off the scoresheet.
With four minutes to play, Montreal extended the lead as Caufield once again found Anderson. This time, the power forward beat Mrazek far side.
The Leafs responded and were all over the Canadiens, but Gallagher won a puck battle after a two-minute shift. He skated with the puck until he entered the offensive zone and slid it to Pitlick who put it home to make it 5-0.
The end of the period got a bit ugly as Suzuki absolutely cleaned Holl’s clock with a clean hit that sent Jason Spezza into a frenzy. To make the situation worse, Jake Muzzin then lost an edge and crashed into an unsuspecting Wideman which left Muzzin sprawled on the ice. Muzzin was able to get up on his own but did not return to the game.
The third period started with the Habs on the power play from the Spezza penalty. Montreal mixed the units to try some combinations with the game already decided which led to many disjointed plays. Play continued to be rather sloppy on both sides with both teams mostly going through the motions.
Five minutes into the period, a point shot from Rielly hit Ilya Mikheyev in the pants to fool Montembeault. A minute later, a nice back pass by Spezza to Pierre Engvall allowed the latter to score and the score was suddenly 5-2 with over 14 minutes still to play. This gave the Maple Leafs hope and life as they really took over and appeared poised to mount their own comeback. Montembeault had other ideas as he made several solid if unspectacular saves.
The Habs fought back as the final ten minutes got underway and that’s all it really took. With the Canadiens on the back end of a back-to-back and Toronto at the front end of theirs, a little push back sent the clock back enough that both teams accepted the outcome and went through the motions for the last five minutes as the Habs cruised to a third consecutive win while playing fun and exciting hockey under St. Louis.
HabsWorld 3 Stars
1st Star – Josh Anderson
Amid the ongoing debate of whether Anderson will be moved in the next month, Josh has come in and lodged himself on the team’s top line alongside the two most skilled forwards in Suzuki and Caufield. He is their bodyguard and puck fetcher, but he’s capitalizing on his chances and really creating something on that line. He was the scorer on this night as the line fired on all cylinders, even after being absolutely robbed on the Mrazek glove save.
Stats: 2 goals, 1 assist, +2, 5 shots, 4 hits, 16:53 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Cole Caufield
Unbelievable what some confidence can do. Count me amongst those who felt came in relatively unprepared for the season. But once he got up to speed, Dominique Ducharme never gave him the chance to get back to what he does best. St. Louis came in at the right time to look like a genius, but he’s also providing the opportunity for Caufield. And boy is the rookie taking advantage of it.
Stats: 1 goal, 2 assists, +3, 2 shots, 16:35 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jeff Petry
Petry is yet another rejuvenated player under the new coach and while he will end up somewhere else, it is nice to see that a player who has been a model Hab since his arrival from Edmonton will have the ability to hopefully end his tenure in Montreal on a high and not on what appeared like an ugly divorce just a few days ago. Another solid night for Petry on both sides of the puck. Excellent game with hopefully some people, to not say many, eating a bit of crow.
Stats: 1 assist, +2, 21:10 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Brendan Gallagher
Gallagher has been playing his best hockey of the season and this game was no exception. Can’t measure his heart. I still think it’s a notch below what Gallagher has accustomed us to through the years, and I think he’s going to need some stamina training in the offseason, but it’s nice to see him back on the right track. Count me amongst those who believe that if the packaged return is adequate, moving on from Gallagher should be entertained by management. Much like Petry, I hope to see him go out on a high if ever he is going out because he’s earned so much praise from this fan base for his remarkable career as a heart and soul guy for the Habs.
Stats: 2 assists, +2, 4 shots, 2 hits, 17:04 T.O.I.