After what felt like an eternity, the Montreal Canadiens were back on the ice for a game. The team they faced was the club they embarrassed in the first round of the 2021 NHL playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, Toronto blew a 3-1 series lead in the post-season, but it’s a new (pre-)season now and the Canadiens are a much different club.
Of course, this is also the first game of the pre-season, so it’s not like we were seeing the final product for Montreal or Toronto. However, this game was a chance to see the return of the Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and Cole Caufield line. It also saw Alexander Romanov playing alongside Jeff Petry, in addition to the debuts of Mathieu Perreault and Cedric Paquette for the Habs after signing in the off-season.
Toronto came out with the early chances, including William Nylander dangling around Gianni Fairbrother, but Cayden Primeau stood tall to deny the chance in tight before the Canadiens drew the game’s first power play.
The man advantage was far from finely tuned, but the top line created a few looks as Toffoli and Caufield worked into the inner slot against the Leafs’ penalty kill. A few errant passes kept the Habs from establishing any sort of real zone time. Toronto continued to amp up the pressure at even strength, but some heady defensive work from Brandon Baddock helped to defuse the Toronto attack.
A Rich Clune hit from behind on Lukas Vejdemo sent Montreal to another power play and Vejdemo to the Habs’ locker room. Dominique Ducharme opted to just roll his lines as the man advantage took effect, but there were no goals to find.
As the play once again returned to five-on-five, Toronto’s top line got a favourable matchup against Montreal’s third pair and took full advantage. Arber Xhekaj drifted off his assignment behind Xavier Ouellet, leaving a swath of open ice for Nylander to feed a pass to a pinching Jake Muzzin. The veteran defender had all day to uncork a laser shot past Cayden Primeau and give the Leafs the lead.
Muzzin nearly added another goal late in the period as he drew out Primeau from his net, but overhandled the puck before firing a weak wrist shot right into Primeau’s pads.
Montreal’s best look came off a big rebound from Michael Hutchinson that Mathieu Perreault swatted back on net. The period ended with Toronto still leading, and the game clearly being the first in a long time for both sides.
The second period start was far from what the Canadiens wanted as Paquette was called for a hook in the offensive zone. On the ensuing power play, it took the Leafs 10 seconds to score on a John Tavares tip in front of the net to double the Leafs’ lead.
Kurtis Gabriel brought the temperature of the game to a mild simmer as he drilled Brandon Baddock with his head down in the offensive zone. Baddock didn’t take kindly to the hit, springing up and tossing Gabriel to the ice along with his gloves, and for his trouble was given an extra stay in the penalty box.
The Habs were able to fend off the power play, but it wasn’t long before a J.-C. Beaudin slash sent them right back to the penalty kill. Primeau did well to fend off a strong Toronto attack, but by the time the kill was over the shot advantage had grown to 19-5 for Toronto.
Montreal made a switch in net at the game’s midpoint, giving Michael McNiven some well-earned game time. McNiven was tested immediately as Toronto nearly bounced a shot off the end boards and then the back of McNiven’s pads, but the netminder was able to flop back and stop the puck.
Not long after that, Michael Bunting broke in alone, but McNiven tracked him well and denied the forward with a nice pad stop. The Habs somehow managed to find themselves in a three-on-zero situation shortly thereafter. Cole Caufield fired his shot, but wide of the net.
With that miss the Canadiens went to the second intermission trailing by three and looking to find a few positives in the final 20 minutes.
The start to the third was much better than the previous 40 minutes. Toffoli fed a perfect cross-zone feed to Caufield, but new goalie Ian Scott was able to get across and blocker the puck out of play.
Montreal as a whole was much stronger as it peppered Scott with chances, but the young goalie stood tall on all of them. Then, with was later revealed to be a groin injury, Scott left the game, with Hutchinson once again popping up in the net.
At the other end, McNiven put together a highlight reel of great saves. Josh Ho-Sang was able to sneak behind the defence on a breakaway, but McNiven met his challenge with a shoulder save to keep Toronto’s lead at three.
Then it was Jake Muzzin finding space in front of the net again, but McNiven got his blocker on that for another outstanding stop on the Leafs’ veteran blue-liner. Unfortunately for McNiven, he also ended up with the biggest blooper of the night when he came out to play the puck, but set it up on a tee for Gabriel. The Leafs’ tough guy had no issue launching it into the open cage to put the game well out of reach late in the third period.
Montreal was able to get themselves on the board late in the game thanks to Toffoli. Romanov fired a pass from his own zone that Suzuki bumped along to Toffoli. The Habs’ leading goal-scorer from last year buried it past Michael Hutchinson to break the shutout bid.
Toffoli sneaks in behind the defence, and puts the Habs on the board. pic.twitter.com/RCg1sr3l6F— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) September 26, 2021
That was the only goal the Canadiens ended up scoring, as Toronto saw the game out in Montreal’s zone. The Leafs also “won” the post-game shootout for the fans as Ilya Mikheyev bested McNiven in the fourth round, while Mathieu Perreault could not solve Hutchinson at the other end.
The Habs have their annual Red vs. White scrimmage today at 3:00 PM EDT, and their next actual preseason game is a rematch against Toronto on Monday evening.