If you happened to miss the game last night between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, you missed a great finish, but you also avoided a plodding start through two periods for both sides. For all intents and purposes, the match really began in the third period, and it didn’t kick off in the way Montreal had hoped.
Leading on the shot counter through two periods, you could say the Maple Leafs deserved the first goal they scored just over a minute into the third. After netting two the previous night versus the Anaheim Ducks, including the winner in overtime, John Tavares opened the scoring.
That proved to be the only shot the Leafs had the rest of the period. They decided to turn to the tactic employed by many NHL teams that carry a lead in the final frame: abandon everything that made you successful through more than two periods and hope the other team doesn’t score.
It nearly worked. Interim starting goaltender Jack Campbell held strong as the Canadiens turned what was a 22-12 shot disadvantage at the time of the Tavares goal into a 27-22 lead by the end of the period. The 26th came off the stick of Marco Scandella, and resulted in the defenceman’s first goal with his hometown team.
As the Maple Leafs collapsed into a defensive box, a half-hearted block attempt by Alex Kerfoot provided a partial screen for Campbell, while another defender was planted directly in front of the goalie. The puck made its way through all three players in blue and white to breach the wall the Canadiens had been hammering all period long.
The Habs had one more shot after the goal, and another chance right before the horn as Ilya Kovalchuk loaded up for a last-gasp attempt but missed the net with a fraction of a second remaining.
In overtime, Toronto finally added to their shot count, but Carey Price turned their only chance aside. Instead, it was the combination of the youngest player on the Canadiens’ roster and the oldest that completed the comeback in style.
Nick Suzuki collected the puck for a breakaway, but just as he was deking across the top of the crease to go to his backhand, the puck was knocked off his stick by a perfect pokecheck from Campbell. Kovalchuk was following up his rookie linemate, and caught the puck on a bounce between two Leafs skaters to fire it to the back of the net, and lead a raucous celebration at the Bell Centre.
In the same week that he shushed the crowd in New Jersey with a shootout decider, last night’s goal was Kovalchuk’s third game-winner since joining the team, and he now leads the Canadiens in that department despite playing just 15 games. This one was the most critical of the three, not only ensuring the Habs got the second point in the game, but also snatching it away from the Leafs to move Montreal one point closer to the third seed in the Atlantic Division. The Habs have now claimed the season series with Toronto, and have that tiebreaker in their back pocket should it be tight enough to need it at the conclusion of the 82-game schedule.
Such clutch performances will be needed all through the next week. Montreal has four games over a six-day span before getting a two-day break. It all starts with the freefalling Arizona Coyotes on Monday.
- There were some noteworthy things in the opening two frames. Artturi Lehkonen blocked a shot with his hand on the penalty kill, and was clutching it the rest of the shift before skating directly to the dressing room. He came back to play the rest of the game, so hopefully that means there’s nothing too concerning there.
- Nate Thompson had an excellent PK shift himself in the second. He took on four Maple Leafs players in their own zone, and battled even after getting stripped to kill off some more time. On the same penalty, Jake Evans was sent over the boards, getting some trust from the coach in his second NHL game. Making sure he didn’t mess his impression up, he was only out for about 20 seconds before sprinting back to the bench.
- Jonathan Drouin made his return to the lineup. He wasn’t very noticeable in limited duty, as you’d expect for a player being dropped directly into a tightly contested battle. He’ll likely be feeling, and therefore looking, a lot more comfortable on Monday.
- That’s pretty much it. They really were rough periods.