With a week off looming ahead of them, and a trio of underwhelming games behind them in the last seven days, the Montreal Canadiens were looking to get back on track as they tried to keep pace with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the North Division. In an attempt to do that Claude Julien made a few changes to the lineup that played on Thursday night.
First it was Victor Mete re-entering the lineup in place of Brett Kulak alongside Alexander Romanov. What was unexpected, however, was the absence of Tomas Tatar from the Habs’ starting forwards, given he had taken normal shifts during morning skate. In his place slotted Tyler Toffoli, with Artturi Lehkonen bumping up to his third line space. On the fourth line, Corey Perry was reinserted in. In goal, it was Carey Price getting the start against Frederik Andersen.
Montreal’s luck wasn’t any better to start the game as Toronto got on the board in the opening five minutes. Auston Matthews easily outworked Phillip Danault for a puck behind the net and fed a pass to Mitch Marner in the slot, who beat Price for his seventh goal of the year.
Once again it was the line of Nick Suzuki, Jonathan Drouin, and Josh Anderson that helped breathe some life back into the game, as Drouin’s backhand chance caused a pileup in Andersen’s crease. It took several more minutes before the Habs managed to keep the puck in the Toronto zone, and in that time the only dangerous look came from Jake Evans grazing the outside of the post on a shot from the half-wall.
A Tyler Toffoli holding penalty threatened to increase the Toronto lead, but Price was more than up to the task, fighting off chances from Matthews and Alex Kerfoot. The penalty-killers did manage an odd-man rush, but Joel Armia’s pass was broken up by T.J. Brodie’s stick, and prevented a shot from even reaching Andersen. By the time the horn went, Montreal was down by a goal, and was likely lucky to not be losing by two or three.
It took almost seven minutes, but Montreal grabbed the first major scoring chance in the second period. Victor Mete broke out of his own end, flying through the neutral zone and then around Justin Holl. He dished a pass off to Toffoli in the slot, but the shot was swallowed up by Andersen, preventing any potential for a follow up chance.
While Carey Price stood strong in the Montreal net, the Canadiens’ attack finally started to find its legs and push into Toronto’s end of the ice. A combination of shots missing the net and mistimed passes still kept them from truly troubling Andersen. Montreal wasn’t totally out of the game, but needed to find a way to break down the Toronto defence going into the third.
The pressure from Montreal carried over into the final period as the Habs’ top line kept Toronto hemmed in their zone, and when the puck made its way out it was quickly transitioned back away from Carey Price. While he wasn’t called upon often to start the period, Price was key in keeping the Toronto lead at just one goal as John Tavares found space in the slot to curl and drag into his shot.
After pushing and pushing, the Canadiens finally got a little luck to go their way, and solved Andersen. Brendan Gallagher was tied up in a board battle but managed to squeeze a puck to Danault coming out from behind the net. Danault found a streaking Toffoli with a pass, and the Habs’ leading goal-scorer had zero problem lifting his 10th goal of the year by Andersen to tie the game.
Montreal nearly added another soon after when Lehkonen’s shot bounced off of Andersen right to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who managed to squeeze his shot over the pad, and under the glove, but not into the net.
The bounces went Montreal’s way once more as the third period neared its final minutes. A hard pass around the boards made it to Jeff Petry at the left point, while Gallagher battled his way to the net-front area in a battle with Brodie. Petry’s shot came in about chest high on Gallagher who batted the puck down, then spun and fired his shot past Andersen to give the Habs a late one-goal lead.
That was all Price and the defence needed as they stymied the Leafs’ attack to the point that Toronto never found a chance to climb back into the game. Even with Toffoli missing a chance at an empty net, Montreal kept the puck to the low-percentage areas of the offensive zone, and cleared it without much fuss to seal a much-needed victory after a rough week.
The win snapped Toronto’s winning streak, and kept them within striking distance for the Canadiens, as a loss would have put Montreal seven points back of first place. The Habs now have an entire week off before their next game, when they’ll see this same Maple Leafs team at the Bell Centre next Saturday night.