For as much as the Montreal Canadiens loved the way their penalty kill was going through the first three games of the season, we know they weren’t coming to Vancouver with the intention of putting it to work as often.
The Canadiens managed 10 consecutive kills over two wins in Edmonton, against an Oilers team that had the NHL’s best power play a season ago, and it was miraculous that taking as many penalties didn’t undo all the other great things they did in both games.
Montreal coach Claude Julien held an 11-minute Zoom press conference earlier on Wednesday and ended it by saying: “We’ve got to maybe clean up that part of the game.”
Taking six penalties against a Vancouver power play that was fourth-best in the NHL last year but 0-for-15 to start this season was anything but a cleanup. It felt a bit like goading a vacationing boxer into punching you in the face because you were feeling good about winning a couple of street fights.
The Canucks scored a staggering blow with three power-play goals before they scored a knockout in the shootout for a 6-5 win.
The penalties were mostly avoidable — a hook in the neutral zone from Tomas Tatar, a hold in the defensive zone from Ben Chiarot, Josh Anderson throwing Quinn Hughes into his own net in a race towards Canucks goaltender Braden Holtby, Brett Kulak for holding and Anderson for delay of game.
The worst one belonged to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who yapped at an official for missing what he felt were two consecutive infractions on the same sequence. The Canadiens had already erased two deficits when Kotkaniemi committed the foul and they were facing a third when Brock Boeser scored less than two minutes later.
“It was just a really, really dumb thing to do from a young guy and that probably cost us a win. Possibly cost us a win tonight,” the 20-year-old said.
But Montreal’s indiscipline, in general, cost the first star on this night a game story that should’ve belonged exclusively to him.
We’re referring to Tyler Toffoli.
It was easy to miss what he was doing well as the stat sheet read zero goals, one assist through his first three games. But everything about Toffoli is easy to miss.
There he was, camped out 50 feet away from all of the action, anticipating the puck shaking loose in his team’s favour, ready to pounce on a wide-open breakaway opportunity while the Canadiens trailed 1-0 in Game 4. And then it happened: Toffoli called for the puck from Kotkaniemi and a split-second later was celebrating his first goal as a Montreal Canadien.
Less than four minutes after that, Toffoli filled a lane on a power-play rush — straight line, stick on the ice and offering Nick Suzuki the best passing option — and scored his second with relative ease.
Toffoli’s third goal came on a sneaky tip play in front of Holtby to make it 5-4 Canadiens with less than four minutes to go in the third.
No one in a blue sweater seemed to expect him to be where he was on any of his goals, but they should’ve known. After all, the Canucks traded for him last season and had him playing a prominent role for 17 games — seven of them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — and they did it because he’s made a career of evading coverage and finishing plays with the touch of a deft scorer.
In an NHL that moves at Mach speed, with flamboyant players flashing big-city skills, the methodical, plotting, small-towner is easy to underestimate.
And yet if you’re able to recognize all the subtleties of the Scarborough, Ont., native’s game, his consistency as a four-time 20-goal scorer should be anything but surprising.
“I think (Toffoli) thinks the game at a really high level,” said Montreal’s Paul Byron ahead of Wednesday’s loss. “You can just see the way he positions himself — he just finds areas to go whether it’s opening up for a D-to-D in the neutral zone, getting open for a centre, finding lanes in the offensive zones (in) little pockets to give support to your linemates, so he makes everyone around him better by doing that. It’s such a subtle, little thing, but something he does really well.
“He’s got great hands, really good stickhandling, deking and stuff like that. He can come in, toe-drag the defence and open himself up a shot when it kind of looks like the lane’s closed. So, I think his addition of his intelligence and his skill set — it really fits in well with his linemates.”
It did in the three games prior to this one, and the fruit was finally plucked in this fourth one. Kotkaniemi added a goal after his assist on Toffoli’s first, and Julien rightly noted that Joel Armia played his best hockey of the young season in the second half of this loss — with an assist on Toffoli’s go-ahead goal.
Toffoli, who signed a four-year, $17-million contract with the Canadiens in October, just missed extending this game in the shootout when he banked a shot off the right post.
It never should’ve gotten there in the first place.
But a rash of penalties — and a kill Julien called “soft” twice in his post-game comments — made it so.
“We’ll learn from it,” said Kotkaniemi.
The Canadiens had better before Thursday’s game against these same Canucks.