Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens build confidence in 4-2 win over Leafs
Published Tuesday, April 13, 2021 10:29AM EDT
Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs with teamed Tyler Toffoli during first period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Monday, April 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
MONTREAL -- Desperation and desire were on display Monday night as the Montreal Canadiens began a crucial week in their season with a 4-2 victory over the North division leading Toronto Maple Leafs.
To put it simply, the Habs just wanted a victory more than the Leafs. With all of the analysis about what has been going wrong with the Canadiens of late, inconsistent effort has been at the top of the list. It’s obviously a nice shot in the arm to start the game with two goals in the first 10 minutes, something the Habs have been on the receiving end of far too many times this season.
Confidence was high as the team proceeded to dominate the remainder of the first period. But it was what happened afterwards that should be most encouraging to Canadiens fans.
When facing the Toronto Maple Leafs, it has to be expected that there will be a point in the game when you will get outplayed significantly by the superior talent on their roster. For the Habs, that was the second period, as the visitors started cooking in the offensive zone. The Leafs started creating space with their movement and dominating possession for long periods of time.
The Canadiens could no doubt have done a much better job of denying clean zone entries. Breaking out the puck with control would have also helped to alleviate some of the pressure. Yet both of Toronto’s goals were down to capitalizing on situational advantages.
Auston Matthews scored his league leading 32nd goal off of a fantastic feed from Mitch Marner. But it was also one of the few times Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe was able to get his top line away from Phillip Danault's trio. Later, John Tavares tied things up off an icing against a tired, makeshift forward group of Eric Staal, Corey Perry and Josh Anderson.
For all their territorial control, per Natural Stat Trick, the Leafs only had two more high-danger scoring chances than the Habs (8 to 6) in the period. For the most part, the Canadiens did a solid job keeping sticks in lanes, blocking shots and funneling Toronto to the outside. They then restored their advantage on the counter attack courtesy of Anderson. They may have had to rely on some last ditch defending as well as a huge right pad save by Jake Allen on Matthews, but the Habs coped with the pressure and escaped the period up by one.
In the third, the Canadiens lived by a very simple and effective mantra: hold the blue line. The Habs combined back pressure in the neutral zone with physical domination of the area between the top of the circle and the blue line. In doing so, they were able to halt the same continuous cycle that had them stuck in their own zone in the second. The Canadiens put in a mature defensive performance whilst clinging to a one goal lead against the fifth highest scoring team in the league.
"Obviously it’s my bread and butter, playing against the (team’s) big line every night," said centerman Phillip Danault post-game when asked about the number he’s done defensively on some of the best players in the division.
"I enjoy that role too, I enjoy the role they give me. So ya, happy but not satisfied."
Danault played an aggressive, harassing game that served as a reminder for how important he will be come playoff time. He has now held the two best players in the North, Matthews and Connor McDavid, to three combined goals through 11 games so far this season. For all the talk about his offensive struggles, Danault can still earn a sizeable raise this summer if he can continue to limit the opposition’s best players down the stretch and into the post-season.
"It’s all about gaining momentum, holding momentum, killing momentum, sticking with the game plan," said goaltender Jake Allen when asked after the game about what makes a good playoff team. "Wins, losses. Highs, lows. It’s just one game at a time. Anyone can beat anyone in the playoffs. I’ve seen it first-hand."
That is what is on the line for the Habs this week.
The post-season can be all but secured before new additions Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson even get into the lineup, which will allow them to settle in a low-pressure environment. The Canadiens started the week with a win over their likely first round playoff opponent last night. The Habs have now opened up an eight-point lead over Calgary with two games in hand. The Flames are in town tomorrow and Friday. By Saturday, the Canadiens could have a 12-point lead with only 15 games remaining.
That would surely be an insurmountable number. It’s within touching distance for the Habs. The playoffs. Where anything can happen. Allegedly.
Jake Allen – 8/10
Looked calm and relaxed in his net. Made an odd-man rush save on Marner in the first look routine. His best of the night was a timely save in tight on Matthews in the second that preserved the Canadiens 3-2 lead. Answered the bell again late in the third with a stop in tight on Spezza. Solid.
Jeff Petry – 7/10
Looked confident back alongside his partner from earlier in the season. Better on the power play. Passing was a bit erratic as he led the team with five giveaways. Lost Matthews in front but bailed out by his goalie. More willing than usual to join the attack with Edmundson holding the fort behind him. Terrific defensively in the third. Won loads of board battles and 50/50 pucks.
Joel Edmundson – 8/10
Led the team in ice time and you wouldn’t even have noticed. That’s when he’s at his best. Very good on the penalty kill. Played a simple game with few mistakes. Just passed the puck to Petry to get out of the zone. Physical down low. Made Allen’s job easier in front of the net.
Shea Weber – 7/10
Good enough from the captain. He and Kulak got in each other’s way a bit deep in their own zone. Understandable since they haven’t played much together. Like Edmundson very good on the PK. He started slowly again with a tough first shift but grew into the game. Seemed like he had a plan for the puck before he received it instead of the panicked passes he has tried to make lately. Made the simple pass to Suzuki for his goal on the power play and was rewarded for it. Did his job defensively in the third. Less is more for him.
Brett Kulak – 7/10
Had his ice time cut in the third as the team tried to preserve a one goal lead. Looked like he lacked some chemistry when it came to defensive assignments with Weber in their own zone. In-zone switches with the captain were a bit off. Is at his best when he’s aggressive, which he was at times. Big block and then support on the 2-on-1 that resulted in Anderson’s game winner. Well utilized.
Alexander Romanov – 7/10
Had some moments that surely convinced the coaching staff he’s in their top six plans, no matter who was acquired at the deadline. Went for the big hit and connected a couple times, most notably in open ice on Reilly. When he grows into his body he’ll be a wrecking ball. Shone defensively last night. Won some important physical battles and then made deft little passes to get out of trouble. Manhandled Matthews along the boards late. Making a reputation for himself. Seven hits. SEVEN!!!
Xavier Ouelette – 6/10
Didn’t play all that much but did a decent job when he got out there. Extremely simple game of physically clearing the front of the net and chip the puck out of the zone. Didn’t get caught at any particular time which is all you can really ask for from him. Always gives all that he can.
Phillip Danault – 8/10
If these two teams end up playing in the playoffs, he’ll be the only chance the Habs have of winning. Without Gallagher he and Tatar have actually raised their games, so credit to them. Matthews and Marner weren’t able to generate much when he was out there. Harried the puck carrier and won the majority of his battles along the boards. Worked extremely hard just in front of his blueline in the third period. Some smart passing as well, most noticeably a backhand through the middle to send Byron on a partial break. Picked up an assist on Tatar’s opener that was basically a reward for his forecheck.
Tomas Tatar – 8/10
Talk about having a fortunate day at the office. A deflected puck on to your stick with an empty net and then a genuine empty net goal. In between, very good. Almost had a terrific one-handed assist to Suzuki if not for a Campbell robbery. His line was consistently driving play forward through the neutral zone. Doesn’t get enough credit for his defensive work.
Paul Byron – 8/10
Deserved a goal last night. Nearly got on the end of a couple bouncing pucks in the neutral zone. Looks like he’ll be on the line with Danault and Tatar for the foreseeable future. Complimented both of them well with a Gallagher-like performance. Whereas Gallagher has net front presence, he has speed. Sent in partially alone by Danault but just missed wide. Was a nuisance all over the ice. Seems to have solved a problem on the right side until the end of the season.
Nick Suzuki – 7/10
That power play goal should do wonders for his confidence. Fantastic curl and drag to rip it stick-side on Campbell. Tracked back really well through the neutral zone. His line didn’t do much offensively but did do a decent job on the forecheck. Not a night for playmaking. Did get beat off the wall by Matthews on his goal. But all-in-all a solid enough game that should help with the confidence.
Tyler Toffoli – 6/10
Surprised Marner when he nearly put the game out of reach as he forced a turnover right in front of the Leafs net. His tame effort was stopped by Campbell though. Somehow didn’t put his 20th of the season into an empty net despite two pretty solid chances. Wasn’t able to produce much offense throughout the game but was disruptive. Three-game scoring slump. Time to worry? Not really.
Jake Evans – 6/10
Was curious to see how he would do on the wing. Like Byron played a Gallagher-like game. The Deadpool line maximum effort comes to mind. Played like he wanted to show he could hang with the more talented players. Didn’t make many skilled plays but was feisty on the forecheck. Played well enough to prove to his coach he can do a job on the wing. Really good on the penalty kill.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 7/10
Back down the middle where he belongs. Direct on the power play, with his shot nearly leading to a Perry goal. Primarily a passer and puck retriever last night. Terrific set up for Anderson on a 2-on-1 that he somehow didn’t convert. Did well winning battles at the blueline in the third period. Picked off a couple passes in the middle of the ice. Played hard in his own end. 69% on faceoffs led the team.
Josh Anderson – 8/10
Had his giddy-up going. The most consistently threatening Canadiens forward on the night. Felt like he was headed for another night of half-chances after getting some decent looks off turnovers in the first. He was the fastest Hab not named Byron. But showed off his sharpshooting ability on his goal going near side on Campbell on a 2-on-1 with Kulak. Was a bit wasteful up to that point so nice to see him convert. Led the team with four shots on goal.
Jonathan Drouin – 6/10
Looked to have taken the first step towards busting out of his slump. Not because of some sustained offensive zone time but because of the work ethic that had been lacking lately. Was up for the game and used his speed to track back well defensively. More engaged physically, highlighted by his three hits on the night. Made some questionable decisions with the puck at times. But then made an unreal first-time touch pass to Kotkaniemi in the neutral zone to spring an odd man rush. Better.
Eric Staal – 5/10
Another pretty anonymous night from him. But at least he’s now properly slotted in the lineup. Not much of anything generated offensively at even strength. Was doing his job in front of the net on Suzuki’s power play goal. But lost Tavares in front of the net on his goal after having failed to clear the puck earlier.
Corey Perry – 5/10
Not exactly the kind of gritty game he shines in. Took a violent slash to the back of the leg from Bogosian for whatever reason. Nearly surprised Campbell on the power play after a Kotkaniemi deflected shot fell to him but he put it into the side netting. The only real chance from him. Looked threatening at times early but faded as the game wore on.
Artturi Lehkonen – 6/10
The hardest working member of the fourth line. The least used forward on the night but gave it his all when he was out there. Forechecked hard and was disruptive. Really good on the penalty kill. In fact the most used forward at 5-on-4. Not much offensively though, which isn’t surprising.
Dominique Ducharme – 7/10
A good start to a crucial week for the coach. Get into the playoffs and that interim tag will surely be removed. His lineup changes yielded pretty positive results. Power play looked better and the penalty kill looked solid. The effort level from his group was where it needed to be. His group showed a lot of confidence holding on to a one-goal lead as decisively as they did in the third. Win those two games against the Flames and you’re effectively in.
One more thing: General manager Marc Bergevin’s deadline moves addressed the blueline, adding Jon Merrill from the Red Wings and Erik Gustafsson from the Flyers. Romanov emphatically answered the first threat to his position with a very solid game against the Leafs. Until Chiarot returns it looks like it will be dealer’s choice for Ducharme. Want a mobile, defensive presence? Go with Merrill. Need someone to run the second wave of the power play and jump in on offense? Go with Gustafsson. Hopefully it works out for Victor Mete in Ottawa but honestly both Merrill and Gustafsson address the team’s needs more than an undersized, fast defenseman.