With their playoff hopes dashed on Friday night, the Montreal Canadiens went into the final game of the season with nothing left to play for after fighting for 81 games. There was still one opponent left on the schedule, however, and the fact that it was the rival Toronto Maple Leafs made maintaining their drive that much easier.
The game offered a chance to see Ryan Poehling in action for the first time after he spent a few games in the press box upon signing his entry-level contract. There’s a lot of hope for what he can contribute to the organization during his career, but I doubt even he anticipated how well his first NHL game would go.
His team got off to a difficult start, as the Habs deflected two Maple Leafs shots past the night’s starter, Charlie Lindgren, in just over eight minutes of play. But just a few minutes later, the work ethic Poehling is known for had him positioned right in front of Frederik Andersen at the opposite end, and Jordan Weal simply had to put the puck on his stick for the rookie to net his first goal at the top level.
Three minutes into the second period, he had single-handedly erased the early two-goal deficit. Another of his patented offensive plays — tipping a point shot toward the net — initially clanked off the post, but he was in perfect position to send his own rebound into the net for his second of the night.
The two teams traded goals over the remainder of the middle frame. A goal by Weal and the 19th of the season for Andrew Shaw were countered by tallies from Trevor Moore and William Nylander. The latter was a wraparound that Lindgren was able to stretch his leg across to cover, but the puck actually went through the crease instead to deflect off the netminder’s back pad for the 4-4 goal.
Eight minutes into the third, the Leafs had their first lead since early in the middle frame as Kasperi Kapanen was left unchecked right in front of the crease. The Leafs held the lead as time wound down, but as had been proven earlier on the night, no lead was safe with Poehling on the ice.
As two defenders went to Artturi Lehkonen on a zone entry, the Finn flipped a backhand pass to Poehling, who once again found himself in some open space. This time, he broke out something that hasn’t been in his normal bag tricks, cleanly beating Andersen with a wrist shot at 17:29 to bring hats raining to the ice.
An entertaining overtime period followed, with plenty of chances for both sides. The best came from the stick of Victor Mete as he flew past the Leafs’ defence and across the front of the crease, but appeared to be tripped up as he attempted to finish off a highlight-reel play. The defenceman will have to wait until his third NHL season to have a shot at the elusive first (legal) goal.
Auston Matthews was the first to score in the shootout, but Jonathan Drouin pulled off a great move to even the score on the next shot. Through three round, those were the only goals on the boards, bringing about a fourth attempt for each side.
To kick it off, Poehling was given his chance to continue a great first game, and he delivered another accurate shot to give Montreal the advantage. At the opposite end, it was up to Lindgren to stop Kapanen to seal the win, and this time the forward’s in-close attempt was turned aside, sending the Canadiens into the off-season on a winnning note.
Poehling finished the night with three goals from the three shots he took (plus the post on the initial tip on his second marker), the game-winner in the shootout, a winning percentage of 57% in the faceoff circle, and a crushing hit for good measure.
The Maple Leafs were handed another loss by Poehling & co., entering the post-season with a 5-7-4 record in their past 16 games. They will still get to play at least four more playoff games than the Canadiens will, though the team came close to making the NHL’s second season. Last night’s win was their 44th of the year, giving them 96 points to rank as the best team outside of the post-season picture, and actually ahead of three teams with playoff berths in the Western Conference.
It’s frustrating to see the team so close to making it, but performances like the one we saw from Poehling last night reinforce the just how much talent is waiting in the wings to help this team in the immediate future. As exciting as this season was for Montreal Canadiens fans, 2019-20 is going to be a whole lot better.