MONTREAL — This was no soul-sucking, hope-wrecking loss; just a tough one the Montreal Canadiens can and must turn away from quickly, with Game 4 less than 24 hours away and a 2-1 series deficit to overcome before going back to Toronto.
Was this 2-1 loss frustrating? You bet.
The Canadiens were once again held to just one goal for a second time in this series. They had a four-minute power play at the start of the game and mustered just one measly scoring chance on it—it didn’t even count for a shot on goal—and they failed to establish a forecheck or sustained offensive-zone time for more than half the game. And yes, this has become an exhausting storyline around these parts, with Carey Price pulling miracles out of his you-know-what—there was something divine about the way he dove across his crease and extended his stick to deflect Jason Spezza’s shot away from a gaping net in the first period—and the team in front of him incapable of just doing what it takes at the other end of the ice.
It was the same thing last summer, with the Canadiens falling in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers after getting held to two goals or less in four and held to zero in two, and with Price saving 93.6 per cent of the shots he faced. Flashback to 2017, when the Canadiens scored just 11 goals in a six-game series loss to the New York Rangers, back when the last playoff game was held at the Bell Centre, and Price was at .933.
But if he isn’t discouraged right now, no one else on the Canadiens should be.
“I’m not frustrated at all, to be honest,” the 33-year-old goaltender said after making 26 saves to render his save percentage a .929 through three games. “I believe in these guys. These guys are talented guys. I see their shots in practice every day, and I have no doubt that they have the ability to score goals. They’re trying out there, I know they are, and it’s going to come.”
Nick Suzuki found one to tie the game 1-1 in the 14th minute of the second period. Tyler Toffoli, who scored 28 goals in 52 games over the regular season and who has always performed well in the playoffs, isn’t likely to remain at zero. Neither is Brendan Gallagher—a consistent 20-goal man who’s topped 30 twice and plays a brand of hockey made for the playoffs.
Cole Caufield, the 20-year-old rookie who clanked the post with his first of six shot attempts in his first-ever playoff game, could break through next time he steps on the ice, despite the job the Maple Leafs are doing to make it difficult on him and all the other Canadiens.
“They’re playing some pretty solid defence on their side, but we’re going to find a way to get through that,” said Price. “Their goaltender’s playing well, we’re going to have to make it more difficult for him.”
These aren’t last year’s Leafs. Many of the core players remain, but they’ve evolved—and that was clear throughout a regular season that saw them dominate the all-Canadian North Division from wire-to-wire.
These Leafs weren’t looking to run up the 2-1 score they carried into the third period after William Nylander took advantage of an ill-timed icing and a well-designed faceoff play to sneak a shot through traffic and bank it off Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot in front of Price, and after Morgan Rielly finished one of several lengthy offensive-zone sequences with a well-disguised shot—selling a pass to the slot before pumping one through on the short side. Without top-six forwards John Tavares and Nick Foligno at their disposal, they turned into the New Jersey Devils of the late-90s and early 2000s, falling into an 0-5 trap and treating the front of Campbell’s crease like a battle royale for most of the frame.
The Leafs clogged the middle, they played smart and disciplined hockey and Campbell stood tall when he had to, pushing aside 15 shots in the third alone. What they did in the first and second was make the Canadiens chase their own tail, forcing Price to dip into his bag of tricks with the magical save on Spezza—and 11 excellent ones on shots Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner combined to throw his way.
But the Canadiens pushed back in the third and have to continue to push when the puck drops in Tuesday’s game.
That starts with “playing with pace through the neutral zone,” as coach Dominique Ducharme said after the game. And when the Canadiens get their chances, guys like Gallagher need to bear down.
“There’s certain areas I’ve got to keep getting better at, but I felt pretty good here,” he said. “Everyone’s going to look at goals. I know goals are hard to come by, and I know I’m going to have to score an important one as the series goes on, but for me, I’ve always told you guys the same thing—as long as the chances are going… I’ve had enough looks here the last couple of games, I’ve just got to find a way to put one by the goalie and contribute that way, but I feel good.”
It’s not often players say that after losing a game—especially one of this magnitude—but that’s the mental resolve needed to approach the situation the Canadiens are facing.
They must derive inspiration from the chance Price is giving them, and from the words he said after the game.
“It’s huge,” Canadiens captain Shea Weber said. “To step in and say something like that—he believes in the guys, and I think it’ll give them confidence and give us confidence to hopefully break through here coming forward.”
It nearly happened on Monday, despite Toronto’s strong play. There’s no reason it can’t happen on Tuesday.
“It’s low-scoring, tight-checking games in the playoffs,” said Gallagher. “They’re dealing with the same thing we’re dealing with; it’s just a matter of find a way. I think we’ve had enough looks, we’ve just got to find a way to beat the goalie. It’s one shot that can change the game.”