Even by pre-season standards, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fourth game of the exhibition schedule asked a lot of its viewers.
First off, neither the Leafs nor the Montreal Canadiens squad they were visiting suited up much in the way of stars. On the Toronto side, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly all sat this one out. Montreal, meanwhile, was without top gunners Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, this contest wasn’t exactly rich with Grade A chances and nobody found the net at all until midway through the second, when the Leafs broke through in a game Toronto ultimately won 2-1 at the Bell Centre.
But while there figures to be a more entertaining game played Saturday night, when these two teams meet again in Montreal with the top dogs in the lineup, there was still something to glean from the Blue and White performance on Friday.
In particular, a couple guys trying to carve out different roles on the squad showed well and gave the Toronto coaching staff and management something further to mull with their play.
Their performances headline our takeaways from this lo-fi clash of the forever rivals.
ALL EYES ON KNIES
Matthew Knies has looked like a steal basically from the moment Toronto drafted him in the second round two years ago and his first training camp with the team is only solidifying that notion.
On the heels of an impressive game against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday — when he made a wonderful play to feed Sam Lafferty for a shorthanded goal — Knies was easily the best Maple Leaf forward on the ice versus Montreal.
Even before he ripped home his first pre-season tally to open the scoring, you couldn’t miss the 20-year-old American.
In the first period — with the Habs on the power play — Knies stripped Jesse Ylonen of the puck in the neutral zone, charged back to the Montreal goal and dropped a nice feed to Fraser Minten for a quality shorthanded chance.
Early in the second, Knies drove through the neutral zone and forced Habs defenceman Gustav Lindstrom into a penalty when he couldn’t handle the former’s speed. On the ensuing power play, Knies immediately made a nice feed to Timothy Liljegren for a dangerous one-timer.
His goal was certainly an impressive display of skill as Knies — once again on the attack despite his team being down a man — took a feed from Minten (who had a strong game himself) at the top of the circle. Knies quickly shuffled the puck, then snapped off a shot that blew past Cayden Primeau on the glove side.
Even in the dying seconds of the game, with Montreal pressing for the equalizer, Knies was the one who knocked the puck clear of the Toronto net and secured the win.
Everyone knew this kid had talent coming into camp. But the awareness he’s shown in all aspects of the game bodes well for what he can immediately bring to one of the Leafs’ top lines, to say nothing of what he can become two or three years from now.
GREGOR IS GAME
He might not be fighting for a primetime spot in the lineup like Knies, but Noah Gregor continues to make a case for himself as a viable bottom-six candidate. What he had in common with Knies on this night was the fact some of his best work came with the Leafs down a man. In the first period, he showed great awareness to hang down low by the crease and clear a loose puck before any Hab could pounce. Then, in the middle frame, his speed was on display as he picked Logan Mailloux’s pocket and created a decent shorthanded scoring chance for himself.
Granted, Gregor was on the ice when the Habs finally scored their lone goal of the game with fewer than five minutes remaining. Still, it was an overall good showing for the former Shark as he tries to impress on a professional tryout.
SAMSONOV’S SCORELESS DEBUT
Ilya Samsonov, the presumptive No. 1 goalie for the Maple Leafs, turned in a clean sheet during his first 40 minutes of the pre-season.
By no means was Samsonov tested by the toothless Montreal attack, but it’s still encouraging to see the guy who, at this point, projects to get the bulk of the starts in Toronto get his feet wet with a good outing.
Samsonov saw 17 shots through two periods and the only puck to get past a Leaf netminder on this night came courtesy of Josh Anderson when, with fewer than five minutes remaining in the game, the GTA boy ripped a one-timer from the slot that Keith Petruzzelli really had no chance of stopping.
CONOR TIMMINS IS BLANKED — BUT BARELY
Conor Timmins entered his third pre-season game having picked up a cool six-pack of points from the back end through his first couple outings. Ultimately, Timmins didn’t wind up on the scoresheet in this affair, but he sure came close when, moments after the Canadiens had pulled within one, the right-shot D-man streaked into the offensive zone and took a beautiful seam pass from Nick Abruzzese and wired a shot that appeared to ding both cross-bar and post.
Moments later, with Toronto still protecting a one-goal lead, Timmins made a strong defensive play to knock the puck away from Ylonen after the Montreal forward had danced into the Leafs zone and was looking dangerous as he bore down on Petruzzelli.
Blue line conversations about the Blue and White are going to get a little more interesting if Timmins continues to look both threatening on the attack and capable in his own zone.