In what was billed as the most important game between the the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs in years, the two teams did not disappoint. The Habs entered the game with 13 straight wins over their rivals, but had been floundering recently, winning just two of their previous 10 games, and getting shut out in four of those.
Montreal went into the game just four points up on the Leafs in the Atlantic Division, and with the Leafs holding a game in hand, this one looked to be a key matchup for the division standings.
Claude Julien made some small changes to the lineup before this game, electing to split up the pairing of Shea Weber and Alexei Emelin, placing Weber with Andrei Markov on the top defensive pairing. David Desharnais and Sven Andrighetto drew into the lineup in place of Michael McCarron and Brian Flynn, while Artturi Lehkonen moved up to the second line place of Paul Byron.
The new fourth line nearly made an immediate impact, as Desharnais was able to set up Mitchell, but the veteran couldn’t connect on a wide-open net. Markov and Weber did a good job holding the puck in and creating chances from the point on the same shift.
Not long after, the Leafs had a good chance to open the scoring, as Auston Matthews had a two opportunities in front but was stymied by Carey Price.
The Habs had a couple of good chances to take the lead halfway through the first, but Jake Gardiner took a goal-saving hooking penalty on Andrighetto in front of the net, then Frederik Andersen made a great play to deny Nathan Beaulieu on the ensuing power play.
It was the Leafs who drew first blood, as Matthews’ centring pass deflected off first Emelin and then Nikita Nesterov in front of the net and past a confused Price.
Max Pacioretty had an opportunity to tie the game with under a minute remaining in the first. His deflection squeaked through Andersen’s legs, but as Pacioretty lifted his arms in celebration, the puck went squarely off the base of the post, and the Toronto goaltender reached back and smothered the puck.
The Canadiens started the second period with some jump. Back-to-back strong shifts in the offensive zone from the third and fourth lines led to Montreal’s third power play of the game. Pacioretty made a great play to strip the puck from Zach Hyman in the neutral zone. He found Andrew Shaw just off the bench, who dropped to Galchenyuk. The centreman sent a perfect cross-ice pass to Pacioretty, and the captain ripped it by Andersen for his 29th goal of the season.
The captain had a chance to give the Habs the lead shortly after but was denied by Andersen on a breakaway.
The Leafs tried their best to respond on a man advantage of their own, but Price came up huge, robbing Connor Brown and then Matthews, who had a golden opportunity but couldn’t put it past the outstretched glove of Price.
Late in the period, Julien, sensing a shift in the game’s momentum, sent Galchenyuk out for a shift with Pacioretty and Radulov. The switch gleaned an instant result, as Nesterov was able to centre for Galchenyuk, and who made no mistake in burying it past Andersen, giving the Habs their first lead of the game.
That Nesterov pass was so sweet that many automatically assumed it was Markov. Myself included.— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) February 26, 2017
Entering Saturday, the Canadiens were 19-1-3 when leading after two periods, so it looked like a game that the Habs could see out. But just over a minute into the third, Matthews was able to gain inside position on the Alexei Emelin in front of the net and tip home his 30th of the year.
“It’s bedlam on the ice in Toronto,” quipped Jim Hughson of Hockey Night in Canada accurately describing the following minutes of the third the period. The Habs were buzzing all around the Leafs’ zone, and Paul Byron had a golden chance to give his team the lead, but was unable to connect on a Weber centring pass.
The play slowed down as regulation time waned, with the teams trying to ensure at least the single point, and no decision was reached after 60 minutes of play.
In overtime, Weber lost the puck crossing the blue line, and Matthews took it and broke in alone. With Galchenyuk on his heels, Matthews snapped a shot that was blockered away by Price, denying the rookie of a hat trick.
Off the ensuing faceoff, Markov sent Plekanec on a two-on-one with Shaw. Plekanec feathered a perfect centring pass to Shaw who was driving the net. Andersen left the net to try and get to the puck first, but he was a half a step late, and Shaw made a nice move to get to his backhand and put it into the empty net for an incredible overtime winner.
With the win, Price passed Ken Dryden for third place all-time in wins in Habs history, recording career win number 259. The Habs also move four points up on Ottawa for first place in the Atlantic Division.
- David Desharnais had a good game. He seems to make an impact each time he enters the lineup after a stint in the pressbox, and his vision brought a different energy to the fourth line. It will be interesting to see what Marc Bergevin does with the centreman before the trade deadline.
- The third line of Byron, Plekanec and Shaw was buzzing all night. Byron has shown he can thrive in that role in the past. That line will give opposing teams fits down the stretch if they stay together for the long haul.
- Many people said that the win over the Rangers on Tuesday would be a turning point for this team. They followed it up by laying a massive egg on home ice against the Islanders. With a thrilling win over a division rival, maybe this win will prove to be the rallying point for a strong finish to the season.