Starting the season without your top defender is not an easy task, and it’s made even harder when on the other side of the ice is a rival that spent the off-season revamping its offence. While the two teams are presently headed in different directions, their pre-season matchups proved that you cannot count out this new-look Montreal Canadiens team, even against a loaded Toronto Maple Leafs roster.
With Carey Price and Frederik Andersen taking their place between the pipes, the Forever Rivals kicked off the newest NHL season with a highly entertaining battle once again. Toronto is still without Swedish winger William Nylander, which forced Tyler Ennis into the top-line spot he would have held, and obviously Montreal was missing a trio of regulars from last season in Shea Weber, Nicolas Deslauriers and David Schlemko.
Just like their pre-season meetings, the Canadiens came out of the gate fast, proving they were not the same team as last year. Right from the outset they poured shots in on the Leafs, holding a lopsided shot advantage through the first half of the period.
Their hard work was rewarded immediately with an Artturi Lehkonen goal. Max Domi shot the puck and the Finn jumped on the errant shot. He fired a sharp-angle shot to give the Habs a well-deserved early lead.
Also as we saw in the pre-season, the Canadiens would be best served by staying out of the box against the Maple Leafs’ power play. Unfortunately, a Jonathan Drouin hooking call proved that true once again, as on the ensuing man advantage Auston Matthews picked his spot and fired a perfect shot past Carey Price’s glove to tie the game.
While Montreal owned the first half of the period, they were on their heels a bit heading into the intermission as Toronto found their legs and put the pressure on.
The second period held similar excitement for both sides, and the vintage Carey Price came to play as well. The Canadiens’ netminder kept the game level twice with a pair of insane, cross-crease, diving saves on Patrick Marleau and Josh Leivo.
After a summer of waiting for
media Leafs fans, it was finally John Tavares’s time to make an impact in a Maple Leafs uniform, and he did so at the expense of Matthew Peca. Tavares collected a pass from Nazem Kadri, and corkscrewed Peca into the ice before sniping one high and past Price.
This Habs team, however, is not last year’s team, and they battled back to find a goal of their own on the power play.
With Zach Hyman in the box, Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi connected to set up Andrew Shaw for a one-time chance in the slot. Even after not playing a game since last March, Shaw made it count as he knuckled a puck past Andersen to tie the game, and gave Kotkaniemi his first NHL point.
Before the period was over the Canadiens’ new speed game garnered a good result once more, with Paul Byron blowing past Igor Ozhiganov and drawing a hooking call. While they didn’t convert in the short time left in the period they carried that power play, and momentum, into the third.
The first two periods were a back-and-forth struggle, but the third period belonged almost entirely to the Canadiens as they piled up chances. Before the third-period horn blew, the Canadiens had doubled Toronto’s shot production and, if not for some untimely lack of finish, would have comfortably been cruising to a victory.
The best chance of the period fell to the stick of Max Domi, who was already having a fantastic debut for the Canadiens, and he nearly had his first goal on a backhand try. After the puck was batted down out of the air, it bounced to Domi who had a yawning cage, but his backhand shot just grazed the side of the net and bounced away into the corner.
It was Price who made the biggest play of the final period, with an incredible sprawling goal-line save as the Leafs looked to cash in during the dying seconds.
That sprawling kick save sent the contest into overtime, with Montreal firmly in the driver’s seat in terms of momentum, but as is the case with hockey, it can change quickly.
A two-man rush between Patrick Marleau and Auston Matthews materialized quickly in overtime, leaving Jeff Petry as the lone defender back on the play. Petry pointing to Matthews, but Lehkonen missed the signal to cover him, and with a goal-scorer like Matthews it was a fatal mistake in overtime.
All things considered, Toronto was supposed to run roughshod over this Canadiens team, but at even strength the Leafs looked highly outmatched, struggling mightily with the speed of Montreal’s forecheckers.
It was the new-look Montreal Canadiens, and it’s a breath of fresh air after last season. While the team will have hiccups as they grow, they’re going to be a lot more difficult to play against this year.
One game down, and the next 81 may be just as fun to watch if this keeps up. We’ll see if they can replicate the effort on Saturday night versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.