After having a week off to train and glue together new formations, the Montreal Canadiens were back in action Saturday night, once again facing their rivals from Toronto.
The Habs, wearing their beautiful reverse retro jerseys, had Carey Price in net, Victor Mete playing on the third pairing with Alexander Romanov, and Tomas Tatar back in the lineup after his surprise scratch a week ago. Tatar took a spot on Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s wing, playing opposite Joel Armia on the third line, while Tyler Toffoli continued next to Phillip Danault. Corey Perry was a healthy scratch for the evening, after playing in nine out of the previous 10 games.
Montreal started hesitant, allowing Toronto to do most of the shooting for the first half of the opening period. This meant that Price got a possibility to get acquainted with the puck early on, something which would come in handy later on.
After testing Frederik Andersen just once during the first 10 minutes, the Canadiens found some steam. Josh Anderson, who looked poised to make an impact from his opening shift, got a chance from up close, which Andersen turned away. The same result occurred minutes later, when Armia got in first on a lost puck in the crease on the game’s first power play.
The opening period ended goalless, but not before Price got to demonstrate his worth for this team. Ilya Mikheyev got his chance up close with the opposing goalie, and chose to make the moves first to trick his opponent down to the ice. Even though he did so successfully, Price showed us his reflexes and got his arm back in position to stop the following shot.
What a diving save by Carey Price! pic.twitter.com/7WxZ7EX38L— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 21, 2021
Toronto went into the locker room knowing they would have a little more than a minute left of a five-on-three, which occurred after Ben Chiarot cleared a puck over the glass while the team was already down Victor Mete. Knowing how efficient the Maple Leafs’ top players are when they get a bit of time and space, the Habs had every reason to shiver during that first-period break. Even more concerning was the fact that Jeff Petry had left the game with a few minutes left to go straight to the locker room.
Petry was back out there to start the second, but that did not help. With exactly one second left of the two-man advantage, Auston Matthews released his team’s first shot of the entire power play. For such a quality sniper though, one shot is all he needs.
The same logic applied just seconds later, when a failed clear from Petry was picked up by Matthews in the neutral zone. The 2016 first overall pick found 1997’s first overall pick Joe Thornton, who then found 2011’s 177th overall pick in the crease. Travis Boyd made no mistake, and that one second left on Mete’s penalty proved crucial. Toronto had gone from all square to two goals up in the time of a heartbeat.
How would the Canadiens respond to this? As it turns out, quite well. A week ago, Tomas Tatar was gnawing his fists as a healthy scratch. Back in the lineup last night, he made a heads-up play from his own zone, which meant that his centre came one-on-one with Andersen from the blue line. Kotkaniemi had ice in his veins and scored his first goal in 12 games.
Just half a minute later, Lord ... I’m sorry, Paul Byron intercepted an attempted Maple Leaf pass to get free passage on the opposing goal from his own zone. William Nylander threw himself onto the ice, but to no avail as the speedster scored his long-awaited first goal of the season.
What had been a close, intense battle between the two men between the pipes was now an all-out attack. Mitch Marner retook the lead for Toronto with a filthy little wrister which went through traffic and in underneath Price’s arm.
Jake Evans could have had the equalizer after a two-on-one ended with Byron serving him a delicious cross-ice pass, but Andersen became flat and saved the rookie’s attempt with his pad.
Mete got sent to the box yet again, this time for getting his stick stuck underneath Mikheyev’s skate. Matthews capitalized with another snipe and the Leafs was back at a two-goal advantage.
Montreal seemed to have battled back into it yet again just seconds later. The puck did cross the line after heavy battle in the crease between the Habs’ third line and the entire Maple Leafs’ organization.
When the referees went to review it, their initial take was to accept it as a good goal. However, after Sheldon Keefe used a challenge for possible goaltender interference, the goal was eventually disallowed. Kotkaniemi shook his head and laughed, while Claude Julien had a much more stern expression behind his giant facemask.
Somehow, it felt like Montreal’s night ended then and there. During the final minutes of the period and the start of the third, they tried to push back and create some sort of lasting pressure around Andersen’s net, but there was no bite to it. Instead, Alex Kerfoot made it 5-2 with six minutes left to play.
Tyler Toffoli did get one back for the Habs, but it was merely a stat padding for the team’s leading goal-scorer.
The schedule tightens up firmly now for a Montreal team that faces Ottawa in the Canadian Tire Centre tonight, and then continues with a game just about every other night until the end of February.