MONTREAL – The streak is dead.
Long live the streak.
Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs hammered a nail in the coffin of the worst run against a single opponent in club history, defeating the Montreal Canadiens 4-3 Saturday night in jaw-dropping style.
Matthews needed just a single shift in overtime, albeit a long 48-second one, to fire his second three-on-three winner of the week, snapping the puck clean over Carey Price’s blocker on a cross-ice pass from William Nylander.
“It’s always a hostile environment when we come in here,” said first-star Matthews. A Hockey Night in Canada towel was draped over the shoulders he used to carry his team to a narrative-altering victory.
“I was contemplating changing, but I didn’t want to give up a three-on-two,” Matthews said after 20:22 worth of work, tops among all forwards. “[Nylander] is so used to finding those seams and giving those types of passes. I just need to be ready because the puck’s coming.”
It was a night pitting two of the NHL’s top-four possession-driving lineups against one another, an evening in which lopsided trends were supposed to even themselves out.
You may have caught wind that, entering the prime-time show, Toronto had not defeated its eldest rival in 14 consecutive games. Going 0-9-5 against the Canadiens since Jan. 18, 2014, the drought loomed as Toronto’s longest against a single opponent in 100 years.
“We’re due against these guys,” understated Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, one of just five current Leafs remaining from that ’14 squad.
“It’s a new year,” vowed winger Zach Hyman. “It’s going to be different.”
“That means absolutely nothing. It’s in the past, we’re looking forward,” assured Nazem Kadri. “We’re a better team than we’ve ever been, so we’re not worried about that.”
The talk, the hype, the hope as big as ceremonial puck-dropper GSP’s biceps — so far, it’s being backed up by action.
The Leafs walked into Bell Centre averaging an NHL-best 41.3 shots per game, outshooting the other guys by more than 10 a game; the Habs had averaged 38.8 on net, out-firing opponents by more than nine shots a night.
Thing is, the Leafs’ pucks hit pay dirt.
“The biggest thing I’m seeing is their shooting percentage is low so normally that turns,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “We’re [too] early to get into a big panic mode here about anything or to think you’re too good or too bad. Usually you’re some place in between.”
The Leafs brought their 13.3 shooting percentage and league-leading offence (22 goals over just four games) into a rocking rink hosted by a Habs club converting on just 2.6 per cent of its attempts on net and forced to remodel a fruitless power-play one week in.
“One team can’t score. The other can’t defend,” one member of scouts’ row summarized. “Should be fun.”
Boy, was it ever.
Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry drew first blood on the game’s first shot, a slapper from the point just over two minutes into the affair, and Montreal’s minuscule shooting percentage began to right itself.
Forty-four seconds later, Auston Matthews did an Auston Matthews thing.
“That first one was beautiful,” marvelled Nylander. “I didn’t know what he was going to do. It looked like a broken play, and he picked up the puck and was able to go cheese. It was a sick goal.”
Gathering steam from his own zone, AM34 flipped the puck through traffic from his own zone, bee-lined after his own pass, swatted down a weak Jordie Benn clear at speed, and snapped one on Price, catching the netminder screened and out of position with an unassisted effort.
“The more [Matthews] plays, the more he knows how much he can do for himself and for his team,” Montreal coach Claude Julien observed.
This one’s worth sitting through the advertising pre-roll:
Prior to puck drop, Babcock lamented that his skilled-yet-loose bunch was nearly leading the league in minor penalties. Discipline, like chance-limiting, remains a work in progress.
“We’re leading the charge [in penalties taken],” Babcock said. “The message being sent isn’t received. We’ve got to fix it.”
Kadri got caught high-sticking 200 feet from his own net, and “fourth-line” “winger” Alex Galchenyuk knotted a back-and-forth first period at two with a blocker-side snipe of his own, the Habs’ long-awaited first power-play marker of 2017-18.
Matthews appeared to strike again in the second frame, deftly tapping home an airborne puck in Price’s crease, but the goal was waved off because his stick was a couple inches above the crossbar at the point of contact.
On the following shift, Jonathan Drouin backhand-tipped a wonderful Karl Alzner slap pass for the trade acquisition’s first of a presumed whackload of goals as a Canadien, giving the contest its third significant momentum shift.
Patrick Marleau answered immediately, tucking a loose puck past a shaky Price during a scramble at the opposite end.
“We’ve shown that we can score some goals, and come back pretty quickly when we get scored on,” Marleau said. “Tonight was no different.”
The sides — running a dead heat in possession metrics and gasp-worthy scoring opportunities — tightened in checking and sharpened in goaltending, until overtime and a 20-year-old superstar pried the thing open.
Price took blame for the loss, calling it his team’s best effort thus far.
“Anytime you come in here, you’re playing Price. He’s the best there is in the league,” Babcock said of Andersen. “You’ve got to be better than him. You’ve got to beat him one-on-one. He did a good job tonight.”
Attack, counter, repeat.
Four lead changes. Whoever scores last wins.
That would be Matthews, because it could only be him.
We asked point-a-game Leaf Marleau if, in all his 1,675 games, he’s seen a kid so young with such a knack for the big moments.
“Jeez,” he thought. “I don’t think so. He’s coming up huge right now. It’s fun to watch.”
A new streak in hockey’s most storied rivalry has begun: 1-0-0.
The most entertaining show on ice returns to Montreal in just a month’s time and will try to keep it alive.
“We still could play way better than we’re playing,” Babcock said. “And we plan on getting better.”