The Habs fought for survival on Thursday night as they trailed the series three games to one and hoped to stay alive to have at least one game at the Bell Centre in front of some fans.
Coach Dominique Ducharme did everything in his power to spoil the game before it started as he inexplicably decided to scratch Brett Kulak in favour of Erik Gustafsson. I mean, Kulak being the first one scratched is a bit of a head-scratcher as Jon Merrill stayed in the lineup, but how does Gustafsson draw in before Alexander Romanov? Some small tinkering with the bottom six saw Jesperi Kotkaniemi centre Paul Byron and Josh Anderson while Eric Staal centred Corey Perry and Joel Armia. Carey Price faced Jack Campbell for the sixth time in the series, so no surprise there.
The Habs came out strong, then sat on their lead, but eventually got the overtime winner on a strong defensive play by the KIDS, so much for lack of playoff experience as it’s a kid-friendly 4-3 win.
Much like Game 4, the Habs came out skating but clearly trying to do too much. This resulted in Toronto controlling the first minute of play. Cole Caufield settled down his team with a strong shift and a good shot on net before the Phillip Danault line controlled a shift and really got the team going.
Four minutes into the period, Wayne Simmonds hit the post before the Habs cleared. Rasmus Sandin got hit hard by Perry on the forecheck and coughed up the puck to Armia who skated in and roofed one to open the scoring.
The Leafs tried to get it back quickly as they created a 2-on-1 that Price had to be sharp to keep out.
At the 8:18 mark, it was Perry again who got physical and created a scrum in front of Campbell. The puck got loose and Armia was on the spot to slide it home for a 2-0 lead.
The second half of the first saw both teams skating hard and forechecking. I thought that whenever the Leafs had a good shift, the Kotkaniemi line would come out and have a physical shift that would swing the momentum back. I hope the coaching staff noticed as it seems like the obvious way to back Toronto off from their speed game. This period was by far the Habs’ best of the series in terms of getting good forechecking and forcing mistakes by Toronto’s blueliners. Montreal was in complete control until the last 90 seconds where Weber stopped a 2-on-1 and William Nylander was stopped twice by Price on perhaps the best Leafs chances of the period.
The second period has been the Habs weakness throughout the series, so they needed to hold on. After a quick 2-on-1 on the first shift that Price stopped, the Habs settled down and controlled much of the opening four minutes of play. That streak was stopped by a good Mitch Marner scoring chance that Price once again pushed away.
The Kotkaniemi line was finally rewarded for their efforts as at 4:52 when a Josh Anderson forecheck caused a panic pass behind the net. Sandin wasn’t ready and Kotkaniemi made him pay. He finished his check, stole the puck, and shoved it under Campbell to extend the lead to 3-0.
After a questionable icing call against the Habs 90 seconds later, a Marner pass from behind the net bounced off Weber, then Tyler Toffoli before sliding in Price’s net. The goal was awarded to Zach Hyman, 3-1. For at least three minutes after the goal, Toronto was all over the Habs, but it was the Carey Price show preserving the lead.
This pressure finally let up, but some Toronto defenders continued to press which meant some open hockey. Both teams got scoring chances, the best one coming from the stick of Toffoli as his line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield really got better as the game wore on.
With 6:21 to play, the officiating did their best to take momentum away from the Habs by assessing the Leafs a penalty. This irony on the Hyman offensive zone trip of Suzuki obviously meant that the power play attempt was once again woeful and gave momentum to Toronto on the sequence. The Leafs controlled the rest of the period but the Habs hung on.
Out of the second, the Habs should have been good for a win. However, the Leafs are a talented bunch and can never be counted out. Hyman got a breakaway in the first minute that was stopped by Price. The big save seemed to energize Montreal who went back and forth with the Leafs in some exciting play despite the lack of real scoring chances. Toronto was getting better chances but I really appreciated that at least the Habs fired back on the early portion of the period.
Brendan Gallagher was finally called for interference. The call wasn’t great, but neither was the one against the Leafs in the second and at least there wasn’t many of them on this night. Once again it was Nylander with the best chance on the man advantage. While the power play didn’t score, they did gain momentum and 11 seconds after the penalty, a point shot from Jake Muzzin got through four bodies (three of them were in white) in front of Price to find the back of the net.
The Leafs were once again all over the Habs, but this time the onslaught didn’t last long. Alex Galchenyuk beat Weber to a loose puck and fired a shot toward the net. Muzzin tipped it home through the five-hole on a goal that clearly surprised Price and made him look bad before the replay showed the deflection. The game was tied with still eight minutes to go.
The Leafs kept coming and the Habs suddenly looked quite nervous every time they touched the puck. Pierre Engvall and Marner were turned aside by Price to keep the game tied.
Finally, the Habs woke up in the final three minutes as Toffoli got a few shots (what did I say about this line getting better?) and Nylander still looked dangerous.
The game required overtime, but it was a short one. A minute into the extra frame, Galchenyuk tried to send a pass to his defenceman in the offensive zone. He didn’t look before doing it and fed Caufield instead. The rookie made the strong defensive play and escaped the zone with Suzuki on a 2-on-0. They passed the puck back and forth until Suzuki had plenty of net to score the game-winner and send the series back to Montreal where some lucky fans will finally get to attend! It’s the first time in NHL playoff history that two players 21 years old or younger combined to score an overtime winner to avoid elimination.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Nick Suzuki
While I do believe it’s a case of too little too late, I think Suzuki has gotten better with every game of this series. This game was the standout moment as it was clear that he was getting more dangerous as the night wore on. In the end, he scored the goal that mattered most a minute into the extra frame. While many continue to say that Suzuki and Kotkaniemi will share duties at the top of the roster for years to come, I don’t agree. Suzuki’s offence just seems far more natural and improvised and he’s the top pivot moving forward in my eyes, though he will need to grow into the role.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 shot, 3 hits, 18:51 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Carey Price
One questionable goal and some OT heroics takes Price out of the spotlight for the first time this series. That being said, let’s not pretend like this team currently stands a chance without his masterful play and this was no exception. Here’s hoping everyone can remember this play and how it’s absolutely worth every penny of his salary next time he struggles in November.
Stats: 32 saves, 35 shots, .914 save %, 2.95 GAA, 60:59 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Joel Armia
Easily the Habs most enigmatic forward, Armia had one of his magician games. He’s a frustrating player because you either want him to magically disappear from the ice for the rest of the game, or you want him to magically find the energy to never get off the ice in another game. This was one of the latter and Montreal’s season is still alive thanks in large part to his first period prowess.
Stats: 2 goals, +2, 3 shots, 3 hits, 12:59 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Corey Perry
It seems as though every single time this season that this team has had a gut-check moment, Corey Perry has gotten them through it. The start of this game was the biggest and latest of these moments. Here comes Perry to lay a big hit to create space for Armia to open the scoring. That wasn’t enough. He then set up in his blue paint office and took the punishment to start the scrum that once again created the space and the rebound for Armia to put it home. He’s been clutch, and if I’m completely honest, a one-year extension in Montreal for him takes priority over the signings of Armia, Tatar, and Danault for me. Then again, that might be because I’d rather see the Habs walk away from the three other UFAs.
Stats: 1 assist, +2, 2 hits, 13:27 T.O.I.