MONTREAL – Electric.
As the NHL strides toward its 100th birthday, some things don’t change with time.
Regardless if you were wearing blue or red during the Leafs’ 6-0 beatdown of the Habs, you were screaming as two rivals continued to trend in opposite trajectories.
With a collection of living legends on hand – Keon and Yvon Cournoyer graced the Leafs and Habs benches, respectively, during warm-ups – and the return of Auston Matthews to the visitors’ lineup after a 12-day, four-game absence, a step into the Bell Centre would give any hockey fan a jolt.
But it would be a second-period line juggle that made Leafs fans salivate and gave Marner and Matthews spark.
“He has a very special group of skills that he uses very well,” Keon said of Matthews. “He can shoot the puck, he can skate. He’s 6-foot-3, so he’s a big guy and can’t be pushed around. All those things make him a great player.”
A six-pack of Hockey Hall of Famers representing each of the league’s original franchises – Cournoyer, Keon, Ray Bourque, Rod Gilbert, Frank Mahovlich, and Denis Savard – joined forces for a ceremonial puck drop.
In a fun bit of crowd-pleasing theatre, Mahovlich and Savard removed their Red Wings and Blackhawks sweaters, respectively, to reveal bleu, blanc et rouge gear.
Unfortunately for the locals, a cranky bunch left cheering a 27th-place team currently stripped of its franchise netminder, that’s about as fun as things got.
Having adopted a tighter-checking style and getting blessed with brilliant goaltending during Matthews’ absence, the Leafs predicted boring play. So did Montreal captain Pacioretty.
“That’s our style anyway, a boring road game,” Pacioretty said prior to a home game. “That’s how we want to have success.”
Out of the gate, Montreal controlled the run of play, winning battles, sustaining zone time, and outshooting Toronto 16-7 in the first period. Yet the Habs failed to solve Frederik Andersen, who’s been zoned-in for a week and now has consecutive blank sheets to show for it.
“Two shutouts in a row,” defenceman Ron Hainsey said. “You’re not gonna get much better than that.”
Hainsey, who began his NHL career as a Canadien in 2002, cracked a tight contest loose midway through the second period with a one-timed blast off a smart Tyler Bozak pass. His first as a Leaf.
Tasting blood, chants of “Go! Leafs! Go!” from the travelling Nation thundered on the ensuing face-off.
And on that very next shift, 37 seconds later, Nazem Kadri streaked down the left flank and whipped a puck over Charlie Lindgren’s short-side shoulder and under the bar for his 10th of the year, tying him with Matthews for the team high – but only temporarily.
Then the Leafs did two things formerly uncharacteristic: They put the screws on their lead, and they partnered Matthews and Marner.
The MMM… Bop Line of Matt Martin, Matthews and Marner was constructed mid-game, perhaps to give the sore centreman a little extra protection, and it clicked like a trip to the chiropractor.
Matthews finally chased Lindgren by converting a backhanded Marner feed, resulting off an aggressive Martin forecheck.
“[Martin] created that entire chance. He drilled down the wall, created a turnover from their D-man, made a pass to me,” said Marner, clearly juiced by his chance to create goals with Matthews, his former carpool mate and video-game nemesis. The two can be seen passing the puck back and forth during every warm-up and are always last to leave the ice.
“It’d be nice to stay with him, but we’ll see what happens.”
Matthews then welcomed Antti Niemi with a quick-release snipe – his second straight two-goal show in this building.
“Hell of a shot on that second one,” said Martin between well-earned bites of a post-game hot dog. “When you’re in a fourth-line situation, you can’t be making behind-the-back passes and turning pucks over…. I want to get them the puck, and once they get it, they’re gonna do some creative stuff with it.”
Turns out, the Maple Leafs can even win with Matthews.
“I didn’t feel too hot out there the first two periods, but it’s all part of coming back,” Matthews said. “Me and Mitchy have a good relationship off the ice. Me and Marty as well. It gives you a nice spark when you play with a couple buddies you don’t get to play with a lot.”
Pacioretty got away with a questionable hit on Nazem Kadri, and Kadri, seething, mixed it up with Shea Weber, but this doused the game in hate too late.
Paul Byron picked a fight with Nikita Zaitsev. “I didn’t expect it, especially when it’s 5-0,” said Zaitsev of his first pro scrap. “It’s not my thing. It’s not my job.”
And Montreal did not score. That’s not a problem Lindgren, Niemi or even Carey Price can fix.
Anglophone choruses of “Olé, Olé, Olé!” rang ironically as swaths of the home-team fans beat traffic.
What coach Mike Babcock noticed during his troops’ test without Matthews was their learning how to play stingier in their own zone, to cut down on the quantity of quality chances presented to the opposition. To limit risk.
“This is how you’re going to have to play in the end, so you may as well play like that. That’s where it’s going,” Babcock said.
“When you’re a team and you’re not very good, you don’t get as many of those [tight] games because the opposition isn’t quite as prepared for you or worried about you. The better you get, the more nights you get that are real hockey. There’s a lot of real hockey right now.”
As for Toronto’s take on the 3M Line, don’t bet on an encore of the Marner-Matthews Show.
“We’ll be back the way we started for next game,” said Babcock. “I just had to do something different than what was going on. When I put [Patrick] Marleau and Brown and [Zach] Hyman together, it gave me another real good line to go with the Kadri line to take over the game a little bit.”
Toronto has now won six real hockey games in a row, and with last-place Arizona Coyotes coming to town Monday, a seventh is a tangible possibility.
Matthews’ health and hands are back, and the timing of his 100th career NHL game is impeccable.
“Pretty cool if that’s my 100th game, especially against the hometown team,” Matthews said. “Should be a fun one.”