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Canadiens @ Flames game recap: Tyler Toffoli clinches crucial victory in Cole Caufield’s debut

In the end, the Canadiens do not have to return from Calgary empty-handed.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

And so the time had come for Cole Caufield’s long-awaited debut in the National Hockey League. After winning the World Junior Championship, crowning his college career with a Hobey Baker Award, and scoring three goals in his first two games with the Laval Rocket, all of Montreal trembled with excitement about what the 5’7” American sniper could add to a struggling Montreal Canadiens side.

Jake Allen was back in net after getting a night off Saturday. Jake Evans got the chance to anchor the fourth line next to Artturi Lehkonen and Eric Staal, while we saw a brand new bottom pairing on defence in the form of Jon Merrill and Eric Gustafsson.

Dominique Ducharme elected to put Caufield on the first line next to two veteran presences in Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar, and it took less than a minute before Danault set up Caufield for a shot attempt which unfortunately went above the Calgary Flames’ net.

Halfway through the first period, Calgary took two penalties within 40 seconds, giving Montreal over a minute to play five-on-three. With more space on the ice, Shea Weber had an increased timeframe to charge his heavy slapper and even take a few steps forward from the point. This meant that the captain’s shot, which otherwise tends to whistle past both netminder and net, bombarded its way past Markstrom for the opening goal of the night.

While the Canadiens still had seconds remaining on their second power play, Corey Perry inadvertently (allegedly) stuck his stick into Rasmus Anderson’s face and was penalized. On the ensuing power play, Calgary tied up the contest. Elias Lindholm was left alone after a bit of turmoil in front of the net and the Swede capitalized with ease.

It was a sluggish first period from both teams, with few shots on goal or clear-cut chances.

Calgary came out stronger in the second, shutting down the Canadiens’ offensive attempts before they could materialize while also establishing traffic in front of Allen. The Montreal goaltender managed to save Calgary’s efforts, but he did so with some difficulty several times, leaving rebounds ready to be picked up by any surging attacker.

As the Eyes On The Prize staff was grinding its teeth over the lacklustre dump-and-chase type of attacking hockey that Montreal was displaying, Tyler Toffoli did what he has done all season: he turned nothing into something and scored. A rare occasion of offensive-zone control meant that the Habs’ attackers could disturb Markstrom with both shots and traffic. Nick Suzuki hit the Calgary netminder in the mask with a wristshot before linemate Joel Armia took a Markstrom rebound out behind the net and backhanded the puck to Toffoli, who instantly ripped it. This was Toffoli’s 25th goal of the year as well as his fourth in the last four games.

Ben Chiarot finished the second period by taking a holding call deep down in the defensive zone, meaning that a Calgary power play would carry over into the third. Fortunately for Montreal, it did not result in anything substantial.

With a one-goal lead in a desperately important game for two playoff hopefuls, we were wondering whether Caufield’s shifts would get fewer and further between in the third period, but Ducharme continued to put the rookie out there, trying to find favourable matchups where he could draw some attention and potentially let loose his lethal shot.

During the third period, it became ever more apparent the difficulty Calgary has under Darryl Sutter to drive play or do much else than feed off opponents’ mistakes. The Canadiens efficiently closed down most opportunities before they had a chance to solidify. The few times when the shots actually made it through to the net, Allen did his job with a little help from his metallic friends.

Calgary removed their goalie in a final attempt to even the score, which only resulted in more open chances for the Habs. If it weren’t for diving efforts from the Flames’ defencemen or an uncharacteristic missed goal from Toffoli, the game would have ended with more than the one-goal win, a slightly nervous 2-1 finish, we witnessed.

All in all, an important victory was in the bag and the mini-series against Calgary ended with two botched leads and one that Montreal could finally keep. This means that they now have a six-point advantage over their foes from Alberta with one game in hand.

Although Caufield did not score, he did end up with the highest expected-goals-for percentage and the second-highest shot-attempt share on the team in his NHL debut. Props also to Jake Evans, who after having an up-and-down rookie season now looks much more comfortable in an NHL role. He reaffirmed how important it is to have speed down the middle to keep your fourth line competitive.