“Can you feel the love tonight?,” Elton John sang way back in 1994. He may not have been singing about the NHL playoffs, but he might as well have. It is a special feeling to just be part of the post-season. Right now there are 15 teams that have already gone on vacation for the summer in what has arguably been the strangest season in modern NHL history. The Montreal Canadiens, however, are still alive and kicking.
After fighting their way through coaching changes, an unwanted COVID break and more injuries than I can count on my fingers, the Habs squeezed into the post-season as the league’s ugly duckling, having collected just the 18th-most points in the league during the regular season.
Back in 1994 when Sir Elton was singing about love between safari mammals, the Canadiens were just a year removed from their 24th and, as it would happen, latest Stanley Cup-victory. Meanwhile, by that point the Toronto Maple Leafs hadn’t managed to claim a Cup in 27 long years. Coincidentally, 1967 was also the last year that Toronto had won a playoff series or even a single playoff game against le bleu-blanc-rouge. At the time, 27 years seemed like a laughably long time to go without a Cup win if you were a fan of the Habs.
There are indeed a few poltergeists in the closet for the blue-and-white franchise from Ontario. Here we are now, in 2021, yet another 27 years later, with still no more Maple Leafs Cups in the cupboard, and them facing the Canadiens in the playoffs for the first time since 1979.
If neither of these two teams goes all the way and finally breaks its Cup drought in 2021, at least one of the fanbases can go into the summer with the heart-warming feeling of having knocked out the arch-rival from the playoffs for the first time in 40 years.
Not long after the game started, we saw how hard it is for even one of the league’s top teams to make a long run. John Tavares suffered a head injury which was as nasty as it was unfortunate. Ben Chiarot hit him with an open-ice tackle which took him to the ground. While on all fours, Corey Perry came surging in, trying to get by the Toronto skipper to join the defensive rush. Perry’s leg hit Tavares straight in the face, knocking the centreman unconscious.
There was a lengthy wait while the medical staffs from both teams attended to Tavares. We got to witness an innumerable amount of scary replays of both the injury and the trainers trying unsuccessfully to get Tavares to sit up before number 91 finally was stabilized on a stretcher and brought off the ice.
Even though this was an inadvertent injury, Perry still had to fight it out with Toronto’s deadline acquisition, Nick Foligno, before the play could resume.
Before the injury, Montreal had looked reinvigorated and focused, coming out of the gates strong after a much-needed week (or more) of rest. Suddenly we saw a Habs team strengthened by the returns of Brendan Gallagher, Philip Danault, Carey Price and captain Shea Weber.
That remained the lasting impression when the players got back out on the ice. Price looked composed in net and was alert for what came his way, while his defence did well to prevent high-quality scoring chances near the net.
Before last night’s game, Josh Anderson had gone 11 straight games without a point. This seemed like as good a night as any to break that streak and get back on the trajectory we saw him on during the majority of the regular season.
Another player who had been in a seemingly neverending slump was Eric Staal. Since being acquired, Staal had played 21 games, with two goals and one helper to his name. That was not what Marc Bergevin was hoping for when he sent two draft picks to Western New York.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. Just a few minutes after Tavares’s freak accident, Staal found Anderson with a sublime pass up the seam. The Powerhorse skated in between the two Leafs defenders and snapped one past Jack Campbell into the net.
Montreal entered the first-period break with a one-goal lead. The question now was how Toronto was going to respond, having lost their captain and a major piece of their formation.
Both teams exchanged power plays to no avail, before William Nylander tied up the game. This was by no means unfair, since by every metric it was a close game between the teams. Nylander got lost in the shuffle beside the net, and when Morgan Rielly’s shot forced Price into a rebound, the Swede was the first one to react.
When Chiarot took a penalty for retaliating after a late tackle from Auston Matthews, the feeling was that we were close to a Maple Leafs lead. Excellent blocking skills from the penalty-killing units averted the dqangers during those two minutes, with a handful of shots being either blocked or redirected off stretched-out Canadiens’ sticks.
Speaking of close calls, early on in the third period Montreal had a golden opportunity to break the tie. One chance in the crease in front of Campbell turned into two and then three when Anderson got hold of the puck with open space and a half-open net. At the very last second, a Toronto defenceman came through to block what otherwise would have been a gamebreaker for the guests.
Jake Evans had gone to the locker room late in the second period. In the third, official word came out that he would not return for the remainder of the game. This was a shame for the Canadiens, since Evans have been ascending for the last few weeks, especially in the company of Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen.
This also meant that each team was down a centre and that both Sheldon Keefe and Dominique Ducharme would have to copy and paste with their lines for the rest of the night.
The Maple Leafs seemed adamant to demonstrate just how blunt Montreal’s power play was. Before the night was over, they had managed to collect three minors for pucks over the glass; a difficult feat even for the best of teams.
Right after Nylander came back onto the ice after the final of those penalties, he and Mitch Marner created a two-on-one that normally ends with one of them converting. Normally, they don’t have a rested Carey Price in the opposing net. Resembling a Tasmanian devil, Price flew from left to right and got a touch on the puck to direct it over the goal.
With eight minutes left to play before overtime, Tomas Tatar was penalized for a high stick in the offensive zone. It felt as though all of Montreal’s failed power plays would come back to haunt them. Then, Paul Byron did what he does best and used his speed to get in on a loose puck before a sliding Rasmus Sandin. Down on his knees, Byron regained possession of the puck and sniped it up in the near corner for the short-handed go-ahead goal. It was a shocker of a score in the most crucial of crucial moments.
This was not a night to remember for either of the power-play units. After the Canadiens’ second goal, both teams got yet another chance to try to break the spell but without luck. In fact, Keefe chose to remove Campbell and play six-on-four for the majority of their last man advantage without getting anything more past the Montreal netminder.
The Canadiens played a close, constraining defence for the last few minutes to keep the Leafs away from the crease. An offside call on Rielly with around a minute left proved to be huge just to get a breather for the defending players.
In the end, Byron’s goal stood as the game’s last one and Montreal had taken the oh-so-important lead in the playoff series. Carey Price saved 35 out of 36 shots to guide his team to victory.
The teams will face off for Game 2 on Saturday night at 7PM ET.