Brendan Gallagher knew it could play out this way after his Canadiens were idle for six days while the Maple Leafs collected five of six points against the Ottawa Senators.
“You don’t really know how you’re going to respond when the puck drops,” said Gallagher on Friday. “It could obviously play either way.”
It didn’t look like it was going to play Montreal’s way at the start of the game, when they missed the net with their first four shot attempts. And as the Maple Leafs skated off the ice with a 5-3 win, it was partially earned and partially gift-wrapped by the Canadiens.
Montreal coach Claude Julien thought it was more the latter.
“The decisions we took to give Toronto their chances to score—I see it as we gave Toronto a win with our mistakes,” said Julien. “The mental decisions were very costly.”
Start with Ben Chiarot, who dumped the puck over the glass while teammate Victor Mete was looking on from the penalty box towards the end of the first period. It’s the kind of penalty Julien has called “avoidable” on countless occasions since the start of the season, and in this case—with Chiarot in the clear and with better options at his disposal—there’s no debating it.
The NHL’s best power play went to work on fresh ice to start the second at 5-on-3 for over a minute, and the Canadiens allowed the one play the Maple Leafs were looking to execute: a seam pass from Mitchell Marner to Auston Matthews, and there was no chance Matthews was going to miss.
He had come into the game as the NHL’s hottest shooter, with 16 goals in 17 contests, and the Canadiens had successfully kept him off the board in their first three meetings. He wouldn’t be denied on this night.
“I’ve got to be in that lane,” Canadiens defenceman Joel Edmundson said. “I’ve got to take (Marner’s) pass away. So, that was pretty much a freebie for (Matthews).”
What happened 17 seconds later was even more irksome for the Canadiens.
Jeff Petry, who finished the first period in Montreal’s room after an awkward collision, is probably wishing he had come out late to start the second. He had been sensational through Montreal’s first 15 games of the season, but he made an uncharacteristic mistake slapping a clearing attempt right into Matthews when he had multiple options to get the puck all the way down the ice. Then he compounded it by making a hopeless attempt to cut off a pass—leaving one of the NHL’s best-ever setup men (Joe Thornton) a 2-on-0 opportunity that Travis Boyd finished.
Still the Canadiens muscled their way back into the game, with Tomas Tatar springing Jesperi Kotkaniemi for a breakaway goal before Paul Byron (who was scratched last Saturday, waived on Sunday, cleared through waivers on Monday and back in the lineup for this one) busted through the gut of the ice and scored a beauty to tie things up.
The joy was short-lived for Montreal with Phillip Danault taking a line change at the wrong time, Shea Weber stepping up in the neutral zone to make a hit on Matthews without Jake Evans being able to provide the necessary back pressure from off the bench to support that decision, and with Marner making a beautiful play to freeze Chiarot and Carey Price in one fell swoop for his ninth goal of the season.
A little less than eight minutes later, Mete missed a stick check and slid his blade under Ilya Mikheyev’s skate for a penalty.
The kill was going alright… until it wasn’t.
“We had a chance to get the puck out, and we didn’t,” said Julien about Danault winning a race to a loose puck and then chopping it to the line but not over it.
Meanwhile, Montreal’s Artturi Lehkonen, typically a savvy defensive forward, had plenty of time to recover and close the gap on Matthews.
But the NHL’s leading scorer, left all by himself, was permitted to walk right in and turn the goal light on for the 18th time this season.
Should Carey Price have stopped the shot? Maybe.
Should Matthews have been impeded in some way from getting as clean a look as he’s had all season? Definitely.
Kotkaniemi and the Canadiens thought they had a goal to bring them to within one before the second period was up, but upon second review—the first one determined it was a goal and then the Maple Leafs challenged for goaltender interference—the goal was called off because it was deemed Kotkaniemi pushed Frederik Andersen’s pad on the play.
Tough break. Could’ve gone either way, but it went against the Canadiens.
But it didn’t cost them the game. They were in it right through the third, until they turned the puck over deep in Toronto’s end and Edmundson made an ill-advised pinch that left Jonathan Drouin and Nick Suzuki scrambling back.
Suzuki had a chance to get to Toronto’s Alexander Kerfoot before the score got to 5-2, but he failed to make the play.
There was a lot of that in this game. The Canadiens tried. They had their legs, they had good intentions, but they were rusty to start and discombobulated to finish—even if Tyler Toffoli scored his 11th of the season to get them back within two goals with 1:26 remaining.
“That will happen after a week off,” Edmundson said. “But we’re playing every other night from now on, so we’ve gotta change that quick and get things rolling again.”
Sunday night in Ottawa would be a good time to start.