TORONTO — Here’s a nightmare scenario for you to ponder if you’re a Montreal Canadiens fan: It’s April 6, the final day of the regular season, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are at the Bell Centre trying to prevent the Canadiens from earning the last two points they need in order to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It’s a reality this Montreal team could be facing. If it comes to fruition, a big part of the reason for it would be the four points they left on the table in their first three meetings with Toronto this season.
The Canadiens dominated nearly every facet of their first game against the Leafs but they ultimately fell 3-2 in overtime at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 3. It was on Feb. 9, in Montreal, that they took a one-goal lead in the third period and squandered it a minute later, just as they squandered a 4-on-3 power play in overtime that night before John Tavares completed a Mitch Marner pass to end the game.
Those were painful outcomes for the Canadiens, but this last one, on Saturday night in Toronto — a 6-3 loss in a game they were leading 3-0 after one period — hurt the most. It was a devastating result in a game they considered the biggest one of their season to date, and how it all unfolded invites all kinds of questions about their fitness to come out on top when the stakes are elevated.
It’s perplexing, really. The Canadiens managed the early onslaught from Toronto and capitalized quickly on their first chance when Andrew Shaw banged home a rebound off Brett Kulak’s point shot. Tomas Tatar scored in the 13th minute, Jeff Petry followed up with one in the 14th, and they rode the wave to a 20-10 shot advantage.
What happened next was a confluence of unforced errors, untimely penalties and bad bounces — leading to a Canadiens collapse of epic proportions.
It started when Auston Matthews did what Auston Matthews does, beating Carey Price with a deceptive shot on the power play after he was given ample time to skate his way in from the blue line to the hash marks. That cut Toronto’s deficit to two with just under 38 minutes remaining.
A brilliant play from Patrick Marleau to Tyler Ennis got the Leafs within one in the 19th minute of the second period, and nothing for the Canadiens was the same after that.
“I think once they scored that second goal, we tightened up,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “I thought we froze even in the third period. We have a one-goal lead — it’s a matter of going out there and playing on our toes the way we had at the start of the game and we couldn’t even make a play. I don’t know why, but we need to learn how to manage these situations better than we have, especially lately.”
Chalk it up to youth, or a lack of killer instinct, or fatigue, or losing focus. Whatever it is, it’s one negative trend for the Canadiens in a season that’s been overwhelmingly positive for them for the most part. It started with the Feb. 9 loss to Toronto, and continued in their next game — a 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. Then it was a 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and a 6-3 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Montreal was playing well in each game coming into the third, and then… poof. On Saturday, they had 31 shots in the first two periods and then had just one on net through the first six minutes of the third.
Seconds later, Price left the Montreal net to play a routine dump-in and the puck took a 75-degree turn off the boards and landed on William Nylander’s stick for an easy goal.
Then, with just under two minutes remaining, Canadiens centre Phil Danault threw what Julien referred to as a “a blind backhand pass that got turned over and ended up in the back of the net.” That decisive blow for Toronto was landed by Zach Hyman via Marner.
Empty-net goals for Andreas Johnsson and Hyman added insult to injury and left the Canadiens licking their wounds.
“It’s a matter of coming in here and knowing the situation and circumstance and not changing the way we play,” said Petry. “We played two really good periods to put pressure on ‘em and I thought there was times we got away from it. We started trying to make the cute plays at the blue line instead of doing what worked for us — making their D turn, getting in on the forecheck and creating turnovers.
“I think that fed their transition a bit, and with a team like that, that has the players to turn them into goals, you turn the puck over enough and you’re forcing plays that they’re eventually going to capitalize on.”
The Leafs did, and they extended their lead to five points over the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference standings. Meanwhile, wins for Columbus and Carolina — and a point earned by Pittsburgh — left Montreal just one point up on the playoff bubble.
You think of the opportunities blown against Toronto by the Canadiens this season and you can’t help but wonder how different the picture might look. They, of course, can’t afford to do that.
“I think that’s where maturity comes in,” said Petry. “We’re going to be in this situation again down the stretch where we’re going to have to find a way.”
The Canadiens better hope they do before it comes down to that final game against the Leafs in Montreal.