The first game of the year for the Habs always seems to be the same. It will be extremely sloppy, it will be a close game, and, sometimes in overtime, the Montreal Canadiens will lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wait, hold on, they won? Well that's new!
The Canadiens were dominated early, with the Maple Leafs consistently outworking them for loose pucks and getting some pretty nice chances, but it was an individual, power forward move from Max Pacioretty that opened the scoring. The goal was the 9,000th road goal by the Canadiens in franchise history, although it seems like every year someone scores a goal that is the thousandth something, the Habs are old, okay? If that move looks a little familiar, it's because Pacioretty has done almost that exact same thing to the Leafs several times now.
Turnstile the Leafs' defense, bear down on the goalie, roof it short side. Not an easy thing to do, unless you're Max Pacioretty.
The Maple Leafs' inspired first period play paid dividends shortly after though, with rookie Brandon Kozun hopping on a loose puck in the slot and wiring a shot that was tipped perfectly by Nazem Kadri and over Carey Price's glove. Then, with Stuart Percy, another Leafs rookie, outhustling Dale Weise to a loose puck and putting a blind pass to an uncovered Tyler Bozak in the slot, the Leafs took a 2-1 lead.
As the seconds ticked down on the first period, it was looking a little bit grim, and the Canadiens didn't even have Josh Gorges to tell them to "GET THOSE PUCKS IN DEEP BOYS, HERE WE GO BOYS, HERE WE GO!" But they responded strongly, with Alexei Emelin sending a great stretch pass to Tomas Plekanec, who took it off his skates while accelerating past Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, then out-waited Jonathan Bernier before sliding a backhand home on a breakaway.
The tempo of the game changed, with the Canadiens now holding a wide edge in play, and after marking chance after chance, P.K. Subban finally broke through for a goal on a great play from David Desharnais, where he out-battled two Leafs on the boards for the puck and quickly fed Subban in the slot.
The teams then exchanged a couple of lucky bounce goals, but the Canadiens came out on top, narrowly, in a game they deserved to win, narrowly.
The new punching bag
I noticed it happening in preseason, but the new media punching bag on the team is clearly Tom Gilbert. Sportsnet highlighted one instance of Gilbert pulling up on a play a little bit to avoid a hit, and making a soft pass behind the net that got picked off. It resulted in two scoring chances against. Showing that one replay over and over makes Gilbert look bad, so did Craig Simpson saying teams don't like Gilbert because he shies away from hits.
This is one of those situations where you look at what's being said and you shake your head in confusion. This is a city whose media and fanbase not only put up with, but defended Douglas Murray for an entire season. They did the same for Francis Bouillon. Yet one game in, they're going to eviscerate Tom Gilbert because he didn't want to get hit from behind on one play?
Here's some numbers to describe what Gilbert was asked to do by Michel Therrien on Wednesday night. 12 defensive zone starts at even strength, only three in the offensive zone. The entire team had 20 defensive zone starts, meaning Gilbert was trusted to take 60% of the team's defensive zone draws at even strength. That harsh usage led to a lowly 44% Fenwick rating, yet he was only responsible for three scoring chances against in 22:29, helped produce two scoring chances for his team, and had a team high 81% success rate on plays in the defensive zone.
Essentially, Michel Therrien threw Gilbert and Andrei Markov to the dogs, and they emerged pretty much without a scratch. I'm sure a lot of people will read that and say things like "Didn't you see Gilbert shy away from that check? He's soft! Don't you watch the games?" Maybe before saying something like that, ask yourself if you're paying attention to the game, or repeating the word vomit of colour commentators.
The top line, or top nine?
If the lines stick as they are for the remainder of the season (They won't), and the way they're deployed stays similar (It might), there's going to be a constant debate over what line is the Canadiens' best, all year long.
The "first line" of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and P.A. Parenteau absolutely ran roughshod over the Maple Leafs during the game, controlling 83% of Fenwick events while Parenteau was on the ice, which is completely absurd, even on a single game level. That line was also fed extremely cushy zone starts though, taking 75% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone. They also created two goals.
The "second line" of Alex Galchenyuk, Tomas Plekanec, and Brendan Gallagher conversely took two thirds of their faceoffs in the defensive zone, but put together a very impressive game, even with Gallagher looking considerably unimpressive for most of it, rocking a 55.6% Fenwick, and scoring two goals.
The "third line" was given the job that I expected the fourth line to get, which was heavy defensive zone deployment. Rene Bourque, Lars Eller, and Jiri Sekac maintained a solid-if-unspectacular 52.9% Fenwick, in spite of a brutal 14.29% offensive zone start percentage. The line continually pushed the play up the ice, and although they didn't cash in, showed some real promise.
The Leafs aren't exactly a good team, but if those three lines can continue to look that good, the next 81 games are going to be fun.