After several long months, the NHL has finally come back to a screen near you, and even without fans in attendance, it’s good to see its return.
The Montreal Canadiens entered the Tuesday night showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs as the last team to squeak into the qualifying round. The game gave Claude Julien a chance to see where his team stands after two weeks of training camp, and begin to fill in his lines for the impending series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the NHL allowing the teams extra skaters for the exhibition game, the Canadiens opted to use Alex Belzile as an extra forward while slotting in Cale Fleury as the seventh defender. Max Domi stayed between Dale Weise and Jordan Weal on the fourth line, while all eyes were on the rejuvenated Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who anchored the third line between Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen. The only real change on defence was Victor Mete sliding to the right side next to Xavier Ouellet on the third pairing. To no surprise it was Carey Price between the pipes.
After all the excitement, it took just 33 seconds for Toronto to take advantage of an ill-advised Ben Chiarot pinch, and John Tavares to feed Ilya Mikheyev for the game’s opening goal.
After a spell of disjointed play from both sides, Weal lost body position against Jake Muzzin, and in the process was called for slashing the Toronto defender, sending Montreal to an early penalty kill. Even with Ouellet losing his stick, the Habs’ kill stood tall, especially Joel Armia who created his own breakaway, blowing by Mitch Marner but unable to tuck his chance by Frederik Andersen at the other end. Despite the early goal surrendered, Price was sharp as the first period wore on as well
Nick Robertson made his first impression by holding back Mete, leading to an offensive-zone penalty, and the Canadiens first man advantage of the night. Proving that some things never change, the power play generated little attack besides Travis Dermott deflecting a puck on his own net.
What looked like a great stick play by Jeff Petry at the end of the first period was whistled as a hook, sending Toronto to a power play to start the second. The Canadiens’ penalty-killers, sans Petry, kept the Leafs off the board, and after taking off down-ice generated their first real attack of the period.
Belzile chipped a few shots on Andersen before Jake Muzzin threw him into the end boards and left him shaken up. It was unfortunately the last action for the forward, as he was taken out of the game and did not return.
On the next shift, Brendan Gallagher caught Mitch Marner with a high stick, putting Montreal down a man once again. The penalty-killers made it three-for-three on the night, then the speed of Paul Byron drew a call on Cody Ceci, allowing the Habs a chance to even the score.
The power play finally saw a goal scored, just not for Montreal as Alexander Kerfoot cleaned up a Kasperi Kapanen short-handed rebound to make it a two-goal Toronto lead. They used that goal to put the pressure on, keeping Montreal trapped in their own end and scrambling to find any sort of footing offensively.
When that chance finally came it fell to the stick of Weise, who had a yawning cage staring back at him, but he pushed it wide, dropping a loud expletive as he exited the ice.
Some slick moves by Nick Suzuki sent Montreal back to the power play, with hopes it would go better than the last time. The man advantage didn’t get the goal, but the Canadiens finally managed to get on the board thanks to Suzuki’s good work once more. The rookie centre used his deceptiveness to fool the Leafs’ defence into thinking he was shooting, then he slid a pass across for a wide-open Tomas Tatar to tap into the open net.
The momentum didn’t last long as the Leafs got a goal back in the final minute of the period when Kerfoot got a stick on Morgan Rielly’s shot to restore the two-goal lead heading into the final period.
A good shift from the Habs’ fourth line started things off, with Max Domi sliding a perfect pass across the Toronto crease, but again Weise wasn’t able to get his stick on it.
A strong shift from Kotkaniemi to keep the puck in the offensive zone led to the Habs’ second goal of the night. He created a chipped pass to Ben Chiarot, whose big shot created a rebound, which Byron kicked to his stick and then fired to the back of the net.
With momentum back on their side, the Canadiens earned another power play, but another lacklustre effort from the man advantage led to a second short-handed goal for Toronto. Figuring out the opponent’s critical flaw, they took another penalty not long after, putting Montreal back on the power play with time slipping away. While the man advantage resembled something vaguely representing an attack, the Canadiens couldn’t convert
Of course they failed to score on another man advantage that immediately followed that one up, and Toronto easily coasted out the remaining minute or so, securing the win in the exhibition contest.
Now the Canadiens will need to reassess their plan of attack ahead of their qualifying-round game against the Penguins on Saturday night.