TORONTO — It was theatre of the absurd on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena, a comedy featuring two teams who spent more than three periods essentially gifting each other chances to win.
And if the Montreal Canadiens were the ones raising their arms in celebration at the end of it, it was because their best player did exactly what was expected of him when it mattered most.
Yes, Carey Price allowed five goals on the first 33 Toronto Maple Leafs shots on net. But no, he couldn’t be faulted on any of them, and the saves he made — with the game on the line in overtime and in the shootout — were otherworldly.
“He’s unbelievable,” said Canadiens centre Max Domi, who scored his team’s first goal and assisted on the second in the 6-5 win. “I’ve said it so many times; he’s the best goalie in the world for a reason and he just keeps showing it every night and it’s crazy how good he is. He kept us in it. Obviously we left him hanging a little bit in the first two (periods). We owed him, we told him that, and we kind of delivered and he obviously held his ground and was his own self and you can’t score on that guy when he’s dialled in like that.”
About what was owed to Price: The rested Canadiens – who last played on Thursday and then took Friday off while the Maple Leafs had to travel to Columbus and play a taxing game against the Blue Jackets before landing back in Toronto in the early hours of Saturday morning – played like their skates were untied through the first 40 minutes of the game.
Several errors allowed Auston Matthews to tie the game at 1-1 in the sixth minute of the first period. Just under 10 minutes later, Canadiens rookie Nick Suzuki tried to dribble the puck out of trouble behind his own net and was stripped of it by Trevor Moore, who fed Alex Kerfoot an easy goal to make it 2-1 Toronto.
Moore made it 3-1 Maple Leafs on the fifth odd-man rush the Canadiens had allowed, and the game wasn’t even 22 minutes old at that point.
Things didn’t get much better for the players in bleu, blanc et rouge as they approached the second intermission. They struggled to string two passes together, they put the deadly Toronto power play to work twice on penalties taken over 190 feet away from their own net, and they only managed six shots on net until a last-minute flurry saw them get to 10.
“We definitely weren’t happy with the first two periods,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien after the game. “We were a fresh team and yet we were sloppy. We weren’t making good decisions, and after two periods we were an extremely frustrated team.”
So Julien put his lines in a blender and the Canadiens came out in the third period determined to turn momentum their way.
Their chances of doing it appeared bleak after William Nylander scored on the power play to give Toronto a 4-1 lead at the 5:16 mark of the frame. But Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin kept his team within reach when he banked a puck off Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly for his first goal of the season on the very next shift. And then teammate Brendan Gallagher made it 4-3 a little over a minute later.
It was at 13:02 that Toronto’s Kasperi Kapanen made the most egregious mistake of the night, throwing the top end of his broken stick at Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry while his team was killing a penalty.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Petry said afterwards.
He also said he couldn’t remember a time in his hockey career where he was given a chance to take a penalty shot.
Petry took advantage of the opportunity, swooping in and tying the game with a shot that beat goaltender Michael Hutchinson low on the glove side.
And it was after Montreal’s Danault scored, and Matthews found the back of the net for his second of the game, that the real fun began.
It started with the first shot Price faced in overtime — a wrister from 11 feet out on a breakaway from $10.89-million shooter Mitch Marner. The 32-year-old goaltender trapped it.
Then it was $11-million shooter and Maple Leafs captain John Tavares with a backhand on the breakaway.
“He pulled it across and just tried to elevate it and I think he was a little bit under pressure, so he didn’t get up as high as he wanted to and I was able to glove it down,” said Price about the save he came up with.
And with six second left in overtime, Tavares broke in again, swept the puck from his backhand to his forehand and Price stuffed him with the top side of his right pad.
It was Matthews, the highest-paid Maple Leaf ($11.63 million per season), who got the first crack at Price in the shootout. He was denied by the goaltender’s left pad.
Marner got shut down by the blocker. And then Tavares had a chance to tie things up, with Paul Byron scoring Montreal’s only goal at the other end.
Tavares came down slowly towards Price’s net and tried to out-wait him, but was ultimately undone by Price’s blocker.
“Everybody’s so good at slowing the pace down and slowing it down,” Price said. “But you just try to be patient and get a good read on it.”
Easier said than done.
But that’s Price, the $10.5-million man who gives the Canadiens a chance to win almost every time he takes to the net. On this night, he made the difference. He’s the main reason they’re going back to Montreal with three-out-of-four points earned in the standings following tough games in Carolina and Toronto.