The Habs’ latest preseason contest had them hosting a veteran-filled Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night. In contrast to last week, the Habs also dressed more veterans, with some very interesting line combinations to observe as the evening got underway.
Sean Monahan made his Habs debut as he had Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson on his wings. Kirby Dach was flanked by Juraj Slafkovsky and Mike Hoffman. Christian Dvorak played with veterans Evgenii Dadonov and Brendan Gallagher which left Laval-bound Brandon Gignac, Xavier Simoneau, and Alex Belzile to round out the group. Different looks on the blue line as Otto Leskinen got a chance to prove his worth playing on the top pair next to Mike Matheson. Arber Xhekaj and Justin Barron played together as they continue to battle for respective roster spots. Corey Schueneman and Madison Bowey were the third pair. Jake Allen was expected to play the entire game, though Kevin Poulin was there if needed.
A minute into the first period, Barron got caught flat-footed which forced Drouin to take a hooking penalty. Xhekaj’s inexperience showed on the penalty kill as he continued to chase hits which took him out of position. This is all the Leafs would need as a tic-tac-toe ended up on William Nylander’s stick as he beat Allen to open the scoring. Rough start for a couple of rookies looking to make the team.
The Canadiens had their first good shift seven minutes in as Dach and Matheson worked the offensive zone to set up Slafkovsky. That same shift ended with a Hoffman giveaway and then compounded by a Leskinen giveaway with Dach missing his assignment on the backcheck as Aston-Reese pounced on a loose puck to make it 2-0 Toronto.
The second half of the period started with a Montreal power play after a too many men call went against the Leafs. The first minute of the advantage was an unmitigated disaster before cooler heads prevailed and the Habs managed a few chances.
The Habs continued to control the pace of play as they closed the shot gap that Toronto had opened in the first half of the period. Notably, the Gallagher-Dadonov duo was dangerous throughout the period with Matheson chipping in from the back end. Gignac took a high-sticking penalty with three minutes to play, but the Habs were able to kill the advantage and escape the period down two.
The second period saw the Canadiens skating much better but the problem they’ve had throughout the preseason was still there as guys looked for the extra pass instead of putting it on net or burying the chance in front of them.
Six minutes into the period, Xhekaj lost a puck battle in the defensive zone and Barron came to help instead of covering his man in front of the net. That man was Nylander who was all alone to receive a pass and roof a backhand over Allen.
On the next shift, Hoffman completed an excellent pass to Slafkovsky who was denied his first goal by a sliding Matt Murray who made an excellent glove save.
The second half of the period featured some scoring chances for Slafkovsky, Hoffman on a Slafkovsky feed, and finally Anderson off a nice Monahan pass. The noticeable difference was that the Habs were getting pucks to the net instead of looking for the extra pass. After a rather rough first half for all defencemen not named Matheson, Xhekaj really put forth a strong end to the second period. Schueneman followed suit but rang a shot off the post. Some interesting play to close out the second.
The third period saw both teams come out flat until Monahan was sent in on a breakaway forcing Murray to make his best save of the night. After a strong Matthews shift, Gallagher and Dvorak set up Dadonov who fanned on an empty net. A flurry of penalties then happened with 11 minutes to play as on the same play, Steeves was called for tripping Anderson and on the same play, Matheson was called for interference and Mitch Marner was called for embellishing the interference.
A minute into a power play that was going nowhere, Zach Aston-Reese boarded Slafkovsky to send the Habs to a 5-on-3. Dach found Hoffman twice on cross-ice passes and Hoffman got all of the shots, but Murray was solid. Gallagher then missed a glorious chance off another excellent Dach pass, but the Habs once again came up empty.
Montreal got another advantage after yet another Toronto offensive zone infraction. This version of the power play finally snapped the Murray shutout bid. Anderson came flying up the ice but coughed up the puck near the offensive faceoff dot. Slafkovsky rushed toward the net with the puck. Murray made the initial save, but Drouin was all over the rebound to make it 3-1.
The positivity was short-lived as Alex Kerfoot took the puck in the corner and fired on net to beat a cheating Allen. It was a terrible goal to give up that ended any ideas of an unlikely comeback for the Habs. Xhekaj took a rather dumb penalty to continue his uneven night, and the Leafs made him pay as they made it 5-1. That was the final score, and it was representative of the game on the ice if I’m being honest.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Juraj Slafkovsky
After another quiet period to start the game, Slafkovsky turned it on in the second period. Chances were a plenty as the big winger started moving his feet and finding the centre of the ice. As is usually the case when players skate and attack the middle, the opposition defenders could not do much to stop such a big body freight training his way toward that ice and chaos ensued. He caused a Toronto penalty in the third and was responsible for the only Habs goal as he picked up a loose puck from Josh Anderson and then impersonated the spider horse as he barrelled straight to the net which led to the rebound and the goal.
Stats: 1 assist, -1, 4 shots, 16:22 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Brendan Gallagher
Gallagher has looked like a 30-goal scorer again in his preseason efforts. He might not get there mostly due to the quality of his linemates, but I’m thinking the writing-off of the player may well have been entirely premature. This is an intriguing development to camp because it’s impossible to slot Gallagher on the third line the way he’s played so far… right?
Stats: -1, 3 shots, 16:24 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Sean Monahan
If many including this writer gave Drouin a pass the other night stating that it was his first game in six months and that he could work on his timing, Monahan came in and obliterated that argument. What an excellent first game after a six-month layoff for Monahan. With Dvorak, Dach, and now Monahan having interesting preseasons, one has to wonder what will happen down the middle to start the season.
Stats: -1, 1 shot, 16:50 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Mike Matheson
Barron essentially punched his ticket to Laval on this night. Leskinen was far too soft. Schueneman and Bowey looked below average as a third pair. Xhekaj was up and down all night. This left Matheson as the NHL-level defender. Hard to do anything worthwhile when everyone around you can’t follow along. A decent effort for Matheson tonight.
Stats: 1 shot, 22:03 T.O.I.