The Montreal Canadiens’ pre-season march is finally nearing its final stage as the team rolled into Toronto for their third meeting that doesn’t count against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday evening. The lineup still was far from the finished product as injuries, player rotation, and a new goalie shook things up once again.
With Cole Caufield not yet game-ready, Jonathan Drouin slid into his spot on the top line with Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki. Meanwhile, Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia flanked Jake Evans on the second line, and Ryan Poehling was given third-line duties with Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Artturi Lehkonen. In net, the newly claimed Samuel Montembeault got the nod to make a full 60-minute debut.
In the early going, Montembeault faced a bevy of chances, including a long-range, seeing-eye shot by Ilya Mikheyev, but he fended them off. Toronto looked like they had taken an early lead one of those opportunities, but Brett Seney had slid right into Montembeault, not allowing him a chance to reset and make the save, so the goal was waved off instantly.
To rub salt in the wound, the Canadiens went right down the ice and opened the scoring with a proper goal. Ben Chiarot crept up along the boards, letting a low-chance shot go on net. Lckily for him, Armia got his stick on the shot, fooling Petr Mrazek as the puck snuck behind him to give Montreal the early edge.
Joel Armia tips the Ben Chiarot shot and the Habs lead 1-0 in Toronto! pic.twitter.com/LlpVXeUl7c— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 5, 2021
The Habs then immediately went on the game’s first power play with a chance to double their lead, but a shaky effort led to a pair of great short-handed looks by Toronto instead, and that was about it for the Habs’ man advantage.
Toronto’s top-six talent then took over the game, with Nick Ritchie tallying a pair of goals in short order. First he was left wide open in front on net as Gianni Fairbrother vacated his assignment, and all Ritchie had to do was tap home the pass from Mitch Marner to tie the game. Then, with Kaiden Guhle sitting for slashing, it was Ritchie striking again, taking advantage of a stickless Ryan Poehling to rifle a second goal past Montembeault to put Toronto on top.
An Ilya Mikheyev cross-checking penalty allowed Montreal a chance to tie the game, and this time the power play did just that. The first unit failed to get much going, but the second wave broke through with a great screen from Mathieu Perreault. Alex Belzile collected a feed from Chris Wideman, firing it through Perreault to tie the game once more.
Alex Belzile fires one through a screen on the power play and the Habs have tied the game! pic.twitter.com/uYkYS2axUz— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 5, 2021
Toronto took the lead back shortly before the end of the first period when Mikheyev atoned for his penalty by snapping a shot through Montembeault to put a damper on the end of the opening period.
The start of the second did not go much better for the Canadiens as Toronto went back to the power play and laid total siege to their opponent. Montembeault was up to the task as Toronto pushed the shot differential to an obscene 32-7 advantage with barely five minutes gone in the middle period.
Montreal continued to take ill-timed penalties, this time with Armia heading to the sin bin. The Canadiens’ penalty-killers did well to force Toronto to the outside, but eventually Brennan Menell crept into the slot and finished off a feed from John Tavares to double the Leafs’ lead.
That lead grew to three goals when Semyon Der-Arguchintsev snapped his first of the pre-season into the net, putting the game pretty well out of reach before 40 minutes were up.
Three goals were the difference when the intermission horn sounded, leaving Montreal looking for some kind of pushback in the third period.
They did not get it. Even with an early power play they were unable to cut into Toronto’s three-goal lead. To make matters worse, as Seney exited the box after serving a penalty, he caught a tired Belzile trying to collect a poor pass from Alexander Romanov. Seney pulled away and finished with aplomb, roofing a backhand by Montembeault to put a stamp on the game.
Despite multiple chances on the power play, the Canadiens never really threatened to put a dent into Toronto’s lead as the third period wore on. In fact, the only real highlight for the Habs was Michael Pezzetta finally getting his wish and tossing the gloves off to tussle with Kurtis Gabriel. It was a spirited fight between the two, even with Pezzetta giving up height and weight to his opponent.
Hell of a tilt between Pezzetta and Gabriel pic.twitter.com/Bm78YO4RjS— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 6, 2021
The good news for Habs fans is that there is just one pre-season game left, on Thursday against the Ottawa Senators. Further good news is that Cole Caufield is expected to return to the starting lineup, and the Canadiens should have as close to an opening-night lineup as possible.
It was a tough debut for Montembeault, but it’s hard to pin the loss on him. The team in front of him struggled mightily against Toronto’s stars, but he did about as well as anyone could have expected under that kind of pressure. With Cayden Primeau needing more time as the starter in Laval, Montembeault seemingly has the backup spot locked down until Carey Price returns.