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Canadiens @ Maple Leafs game recap: Habs run out of steam after early lead

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The hunt for a playoff berth continues after another loss to Toronto.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Looking for a win to just about secure their playoff berth, the Montreal Canadiens rolled into Toronto for their final regular season matchup with the Maple Leafs. Toronto ran rampant on the back of a four-goal first period against Cayden Primeau on Thursday night, so Montreal was looking to even the score.

The Habs were again caught short-handed as Phillip Danault was out with a concussion, and Alex Belzile was slotted into the fourth line. That meant Eric Staal was moved up to line three, and Jake Evans got back his old AHL running mate on the fourth. Jake Allen got the start, while the defence remained the same.

Unlike their struggling start during the week, the Canadiens came out much stronger on Saturday. The line of Nick Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli, and Joel Armia created a bevy of chances to keep the Leafs backed up into their own zone until Jack Campbell could smother the puck for a break. Then it was the new guy who helped create the game’s first goal, as Alex Belzile ran rampant in front of Toronto’s net.

The cagey AHL journeyman drove hard to the crease, knocking the stick from Jake Muzzin’s hands and shoving a puck along the boards to Brett Kulak. Kulak circled to the middle, walking the line while Belzile blocked Campbell’s eyes in front of the net, and let his shot fly through the smallest of gaps to put the Canadiens up by a goal early.

Montreal kept the pressure on while keeping Toronto’s biggest weapons at bay through the midpoint of the period. Cole Caufield picked out Jeff Petry creeping in from the point, but Petry’s shot was kicked up into the netting away from Campbell. Montreal’s hard-skating also drew the game’s first penalty, with Justin Holl taking a seat for tripping up Joel Armia as the big Finn attacked the Toronto blue line.

The Canadiens pushed but couldn’t find a second goal, and a blocked chance ended up springing the Leafs for an odd-man rush with Holl exiting the box. Alexander Romanov slid down to cut off, then slide through, the passing lane and it looked like Holl had the space to get a pass across to Auston Matthews. However, a hard backcheck by Caufield broke the play up, and pushed the puck out of the Canadiens’ zone.

When the intermission horn sounded, the Canadiens had held the Leafs to just three shots on goal, a strong first period in a big game.

The strong play continued to start the second, with another Montreal goal on the board, this time coming from a defensive-zone faceoff. The Habs won the draw up the boards and Tyler Toffoli chipped it along for Suzuki. Suzuki took off on a two-on-one rush with Joel Armia, but opted to keep the puck and fired a knuckling shot through Campbell, and the Canadiens had a two-goal lead.

It didn’t take long for Allen to even up the bad goals, however, as Toronto got on the board with five minutes gone. Pierre Engvall circled into the high slot and let a nothing shot go toward the net. Allen either couldn’t see it along the ice or just fell asleep, and it slowly went through his five hole to bring Toronto within a goal.

The shifty skating of Caufield drew a tripping call against Mitch Marner, giving the Habs a chance to restore their two-goal lead. The man advantage struggled to generate much quality attack, and the two minutes passed without much incident.

The power play misfiring ended up being a turning point because Toronto found their tying goal shortly after the play returned to five-on-five. William Nylander was able to find a soft spot behind Romanov and get off a quick wristshot to tie the game at two goals a side.

Toronto then took a lead off a faceoff set play, with Matthews winning the draw back to Marner. The Leaf winger circled off the boards and snapped his shot right past Allen and Toronto was suddenly up by a goal late in the second period. To make matters worse, the period ended with Montreal on the penalty kill after a Petry cross-checking penalty.

The Habs fought off the Toronto power play, and even weathered a surge that followed to start the third period before drawing a penalty of their own to put them on a crucial power play. The man advantage again failed to generate anything meaningful and Toronto was able to easily coast back to even strength.

Despite trailing, the Canadiens’ lack of urgency was apparent as Toronto was able to easily deny any Montreal forays into the offensive zone time and time again. Even with Allen on the bench and an extra attacker on the ice, Montreal failed to truly threaten Toronto. A dubious tripping call on Petry wiped out the advantage, and Montreal again failed to take steps to secure their playoff spot, while also handing Toronto the division crown with their 3-2 win.

The Canadiens are now off until Monday when they’ll meet the Edmonton Oilers at the Bell Centre for the first of their final two games in the regular season.