How to watch
Start time: 7:00 PM EST / 4:00 PM PST
In Canada: CBC, Sportsnet, CityTV, NHL Network (English), TVA Sports (French)
Elsewhere: NHL.tv/NHL Live
Things weren’t looking great last Saturday night. The Montreal Canadiens were 1-0 down to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the second intermission, a mere 20 minutes away from a three-game losing streak and four losses in their last five games. Worse, the team was poised to enter a de facto bye week, meaning that the outcome and its implications would stew and percolate around the team like an odour.
With all that on the line, the Canadiens found an extra gear, one that they had arguably not reached since back-to-back victories against the Vancouver Canucks. The Habs outattempted the Leafs 26-12 in that third period. They outshot them 12-6, outchanced them 12-10, and, most importantly, outscored them 2-0.
It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.
Tale of the Tape
|54.6% (3rd)||Corsi-for pct.||48.5% (22nd)|
|3.47 (5th)||Goals per game||3.72 (2nd)|
|2.53 (6th)||Goals against per game||2.67 (9th)|
|20.8% (16th)||PP%||34.6% (1st)|
|80.0% (15th)||PK%||76.9% (21st)|
Thanks to that victory, the atmosphere around Montreal has been a lot more pleasant than it would have been otherwise. Rather than lingering on the stench of that hypothetical losing streak, local media attention has instead largely centred around the (successful) start to the Laval Rocket’s season. By all indications, it should be a calm and prepared squad ready to resume business as usual at the Bell Centre tonight.
What better way to get back to the grind than against those very same Leafs?
While the Canadiens have been recharging, the Leafs have been extending their lead on their North Division rival. It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses though. Although they picked up five points against the lowly Ottawa Senators in their three game set, the going was anything but simple. The Leafs even made headlines around the hockey world by blowing a 5-1 lead in the first game of the series. When that on-ice performance is combined with some jaundiced commentary about William Nylander’s future with the club, it seems like the Leafs might be losing their new-season freshness.
Still, the old adage “the fish rots from the head down” doesn’t seem to apply here. Auston Matthews is far and away the Leafs’ MVP through the first quarter. Sixteen goals through 17 games has the mustachioed one four goals up on second-place Brock Boeser in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy. The biggest beneficiary of Matthews’s start has been wingman Mitch Marner, whose team-leading 27 points include eight assists on Matthews goals. Meanwhile, although John Tavares and Nylander have been absorbing much of the flack aimed at the team, the two still have 15 and 12 points, respectively.
No, the problem with the Maple Leafs is as it always has been: who else can contribute apart from the big four? In the 289 five-on-five minutes that Toronto has played without any members of the big four on the ice, they have a -50 attempt differential, a -10 shot differential, and a -2 goal differential. It’s reached the point where Kyle Dubas recently traded for former Canadien (as well as Hurricane, Senator, Wild, Penguin, and Coyote) Alex Galchenyuk in an attempt to shore up his forward depth.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe has come up with a solution to his woes: simply never take this quartet off the ice. Keeping in mind that Toronto has played 801 minutes at five-on-five so far this year, it means that one of the big four has been on the ice for a somewhat ridiculous 64% of the time. To put it another way, 289 minutes divided by 18 is 16:03; the average Leafs game contains only 16 minutes of five-on-five time when one of the big four is not on the ice.
This strategy comes at a cost, though. Through 18 games, Matthews is at 21:49, Marner at 22:47, while Tavares and Nylander enjoy a more pedestrian 17:40 and 16:14, respectively. By comparison, Nick Suzuki leads Canadiens forwards at a mere 18:11, followed by Tyler Toffoli at 16:53 and Phillip Danault at 16:09. While no one will confuse Matthews’s legs for those of Joe Thornton, all these minutes add up, especially in a compressed season like this one.
Ultimately, that’s a conversation for March and April. Right now, it’s a battle between a top-heavy but still potent Toronto squad against a well-balanced and well-rested Canadiens team. With eight games in 15 days starting tonight, the Habs need to start establishing a mid-season rhythm to complement their excellent start thus far. Taking more points from their biggest divisional competition would serve as an important first step.