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Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs game recap: Unexpected victory for new, young Habs

Montreal needed just a single regular-season game to score more wins than they did during this entire pre-season.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images

A lot can happen in 10 months. The last time I wrote a game recap for the Montreal Canadiens, Jeff Gorton had just been hired to be the new link between management and ownership. In a corresponding move, Marc Bergevin had just been let go and his replacement, the former agent Kent Hughes, was yet a few weeks from being named his successor.

In December, 2021, Dominique Ducharme was still the head coach, being less than half a year removed from a Stanley Cup berth. In the lineup, Kale Clague was making his first start after being claimed off the waiver wire. For that night, he was paired up with Brett Kulak. During the game, Jonathan Drouin scored a goal with his leg and Ben Chiarot was reigning steady as the team’s offensive talisman for the season.

So here we stand now, having finally lived through a proper pre-season again for the first time in three years. It was a pre-season in which the Canadiens did everything they could to remain winless, but where nobody – apart from Joel Edmundson – probably expected much more anyway.

In this, the first competitive lineup for the 2022-23-season, Martin St-Louis sent out an intriguing mix of youth and experience, with first overall pick Juraj Slafkovský playing on the third line together with veterans Christian Dvorak and Brendan Gallagher.

Among the other rookies, the Czech-Albanian-Canadian sensation commonly known as Arber Xhekaj was paired up with Chris Wideman, while fellow rookie Jordan Harris partnered up with Johnathan Kovacevic on the second pairing, in the very first of potentially many trials by fire for both players. This specific pairing went into last night’s game with a combined tally of 14 NHL games between them.

One of the pre-season’s true bright spots, 2020 first-rounder Kaiden Guhle, also made his NHL debut, playing on the top pairing with heavy senior David Savard. Jake Allen, fresh off a contract extension, got the nod to start between the pipes.

Montreal received a couple of early opportunities to practise their power play when Mark Giordano and Michael Bunting were sent to the box for unnecessary fouls in the neutral zone. There were no goals to write home about, but at least there were some creative looks compared to the last few years.

The first goal of the game instead went to the guests from Ontario. Mitch Marner did well to find the open space behind the Montreal net and 27-year-old recent Calder Trophy finalist Michael Bunting positioned himself in the slot to receive the puck and fire it past Allen.

Less than a minute was played of the second period when the Habs tied the contest up at one. Powerhorse Josh Anderson demonstrated his physical ability behind his own net to let his team win the puck back.

What followed was captain Nick Suzuki and his vice-sheriff Cole Caufield being sent away on a two-man-rush against one poor, lonely T.J Brodie. Suzuki waited until the opportune moment to dish the pass across the ice and Caufield did the rest, lashing the puck into the net from a narrow angle. The pocket-sized future Rocket-winner looked visibly relieved in opening the scoring account so soon, especially when having last year’s season in close memory.

Toronto would regain their lead halfway through the second period, when Denis Albertowitsch Malgin ended up in the right place to score an empty-netter rebound from the crease and open his account with the Maple Leafs. The Canadiens’ defence just seemed completely out of sync on this goal, not knowing who should be where and who should cover whom.

A few of the Habs youngsters have come further in their development than others. Last season, Cole Caufield had just one single goal to his name with half the season played. This year, he had two in just the opening game, with the second one being as important as it was pretty. Montreal’s number 22 took possession in the neutral zone and then never let go of the puck, showing pass for the Toronto defence up until the last second, when he absolutely ripped the puck by a bewildered Matt Murray.

Before the period was over, both teams had prime chances to go into the second intermission with a lead to their name. For Montreal, it was summer acquisition Kirby Dach who had a puck dancing on the goal line below Murray for so long that the referees felt obligated to check the video.

On the other side of the rink, Toronto received a penalty shot when Alex Kerfoot was disturbed by Xhekaj on a breakaway. In the end, Allen went victorious out of the duel and the game remained tied at two goals a-piece.

As the third period wore on with neither team getting a breakthrough, I remained impressed with how this team – which had just gone winless against teams like Winnipeg and Ottawa for a whole bunch of games – were now going toe-to-toe with one of the Division favourites. Especially impressive is the fact that they were now doing so with a handful of younger, inexperienced players taking on heavy duties.

Slafkovsky had demonstrated his physical prowess on more than one occasion and, as should be the case with an 18-year-old rookie, he seems to get more and more comfortable handling himself at a higher level. Harris, Xhekaj and Johnny Kovacevic had decent season debuts on the back end, while Guhle looked like a seasoned vet as soon as he first set foot on NHL ice.

The game continued to go back and forth without anything critical occurring for the first 17 minutes of the last period. And then, naturally, everything exploded all at once.

Montreal started it off by taking its first lead of the night. They did so just after succesfully killing off a high sticking-penalty on Harris. Harris was actually the one who found Dach in front of the net with a pass which blew the Toronto defence wide open. Dach redirected the puck on and another new recruit, Sean Monahan, got the pleasure of scoring the go-ahead goal on his 28th birthday.

Naturally, a Canadiens win never happens without constant oscillations between heaven and hell. Less than a minute later, William Nylander had tied up the contest yet again on a goal that was as close to offside as it could ever get without actually being offside.

Everything looked set to be decided with a five-minute overtime period, which in itself would be quite the successful start to the Canadiens season. But, as Eyes On The Prize’s oracle editor Andrea Rowe wrote earlier in the evening when she attempted a sudden hostile takeover on my recap: “The Habs are so lucky to have Josh Anderson.”

With a mere 19 seconds to go before the buzzer, captain Suzuki and his veins of ice decided not to shoot against the fluttering Matt Murray, but instead held onto the puck for just a split second before handing it over to the aforementioned Anderson. With a proper snipe of a wrist shot, Josh the Powerhorse sent the Bell Centre into an unexpected frenzy, as the Canadiens battled through for their very first victory since April 29.

I believe it was Starship who once sang that “Nothing’s gonna stop us now.” Only time will tell if that is indeed the case for the 2022-23-version of the Canadiens as well.

At the very least, we can stay happy until the Canadiens play their next game, which will be at 7:00 PM on Friday, when the Habs face off against their notorious bogeyteam from Motown.