Canadiens’ maturity in loss to Maple Leafs step in right direction

John Tavares scored his 33rd goal of the season to get the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win in overtime against the Canadiens in Montreal.

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens went toe-to-toe with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, and they got knocked out in the dying seconds of the final round.

That they played a strong, passionate, hard-checking, in-your-face type of game, a game they took down to the wire — against one of the National Hockey League’s best and most talented teams — was something to be proud of.

But the Canadiens were anything but satisfied afterwards, and that is the biggest sign of maturation we’ve seen from a group that came into the season as the second-youngest one in the league.

Bottom line: Moral victories are for losers, and this 31-18-7 team isn’t treating this like one of those.

“It’s very okay to be pissed off about that loss,” said Andrew Shaw, who returned from a neck injury to play his first game since New Year’s Eve and registered a goal and an assist in the process. “The game was ours and we let it go.”

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Absolutely, they did. The Canadiens took the lead in the eighth minute of the third period when Brendan Gallagher scored on the power play, but they let their guard down 1:11 later — allowing William Nylander the time to take a shot that beat Carey Price from the slot. Tied at 3-3 with 31 seconds left in the frame, Nikita Zaitsev, who gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead in the fifth minute of the first, dumped a puck over the glass and sent the Canadiens to a power play that in the end produced nothing but momentum for their opposition.

Montreal went from 5-on-4 to 4-on-3 in overtime and failed to manage a shot on net over that minute and 29-second advantage. They were in position to pull the trigger — both figuratively and literally — and just couldn’t do it.

A little more than 45 seconds after Zaitsev’s penalty expired, John Tavares found a seam to skate through while Mitch Marner drew two Canadiens defenders towards him on a clean zone entry. Big No. 91 then buried the game, delivering a gut-punch to the Canadiens via a backhand to the top shelf of Price’s net.

“We found a way to just hang on, hang on, and then we won the game,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock.

His team counter-punched all night, with Andreas Johnsson tying the game 1:29 after Shaw opened the scoring in the first minute, with Nylander’s goal, with Tavares’s, and on the shot clock nearly all the way through (16-15 Leafs in the first, 9-9 in the second, 14-6 Canadiens in the third, one and only in overtime).

Price blamed himself for Nylander’s shot, and Canadiens captain Shea Weber, forward Max Domi and Shaw felt the power play let the team down — first on a four-minute advantage in the first period and then certainly in overtime. Phillip Danault left the dressing room cursing and shaking his head before reporters had a chance to catch up with him.

“We’re frustrated about this game for sure,” said Weber.

A chance to pass their Atlantic-Division rival in the standings — the two games in hand Toronto owns be damned — slipped from their grasp.

“I think it’s great that the guys are mad,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “They’re disappointed because they wanted to win, and I like that because we believe in ourselves, we believe that we can go out there and give ourselves a chance to win. They wanted to win this game. I like our approach; we’re not on our high horses, but we’re a confident team that thinks that if they play well enough they can win any game. So that’s how they’re approaching every one of them so far, so when you lose, for them it’s a loss.”

One mixed into a segment of five consecutive games at home that’s seen the Canadiens take eight of a possible 10 points — and from some pretty good teams too. But that didn’t make it any more digestible.

That considered, Saturday’s game may have been a bitter pill to swallow, but it was still valuable experience gained for a team on course to participate in this year’s playoffs.

“I think those are the types of games we like to play in,” said the 23-year-old Domi. “We like the pressure, we like the circumstances, and that’s a big stage. I think we did a pretty good job, but we can definitely learn from this and get even better.”

That’s a fact, and it’s something to be encouraged about for the Canadiens, even if they derived no satisfaction from their effort on the night.

“Tonight there was a lot of emotion in the game,” said Julien. “It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens and you could see at times our bench — whether the linesman missed a call or the referees—guys were really into it to the point where we kind of had to take a step back. So this was great for us to be able to play in those types of situations and be able to handle it better. We’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t been there and we hope that they’re going to get a chance to be there, so this was a pretty good sample of what you would get in the playoffs.”

Their reaction to it was too.

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