Fresh off a 2-1 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils, the Toronto Maple Leafs were back to work, this time at the Bell Centre on Hockey Day in Canada for the fourth meeting of the season against their storied rival Montreal Canadiens. In order for the Leafs to build on their eight point distance from a playoff spot, they would require an effort similar to Thursday night, and have to erase a trend that had seen the home team win the previous three outings.
The exciting atmosphere, evident whenever the two historic rivals meet, was alive and opened the game with a buzz. A scoreless first period did not reflect the action, as both teams traded chances. Although hemmed in their zone on a few shifts, the Leafs were able to generate quality opportunities, some while shorthanded. The opening frame would end on an exciting note, as new Leaf Joffrey Lupul would climatize himself to the Toronto/Montreal hostilities. Upset with an arrant high stick from P.K. Subban and battling the Montreal defender throughout the period, Lupul dropped the gloves in a spirited bout.
The late first period tilt lifted both teams out of the gate in the second, with the Canadiens grabbing momentum and control of the game. A shorthanded chance by Tomas Plekanec seemed to lift his squad, and they eventually opened the game’s scoring. Poor defensive coverage sent the Leafs puck watching and consequently picking the puck from their net. Benoit Pouliot was left alone in the slot and from a nice David Desharnais feed from behind the net made the game 1-0. Shortly after, the same play would bite the Leafs again, this time with Canadiens captain Brian Gionta beating J.S. Giguere for the two goal lead. Given a chance to put themselves into the game on the powerplay, the Leafs were unable to generate much and missed their opportunities to get on the board. For the 20th time this season, the Leafs went into the third period without a goal.
Third period penalty trouble would cost the Leafs and absorb valuable time to register their first goal at the Bell Centre since April 10 last season. With Darryl Boyce in the box for hooking, David Desharnais would continue his strong night, widening the gap for the Canadiens. Using a give-and-go pass to Scott Gomez, Desharnais went to the net quickly and beat Giguere for the 3-0 lead, and smothering the Leafs chances for a comeback. Frustration would boil over for the Leafs, and with two consecutive penalties late in the period, the Canadiens were left to finish the game on a 5-on-3 powerplay and a 3-0 victory.
The game was a loud wake-up call for the Leafs, a team desperate for points to amount quickly. Being in the position they are and running out of time to gain ground towards post-season play, taking their foot off the pedal is not an option for this team. Missed opportunities on the stagnant powerplay proved the difference in tonight’s game, like many throughout the year. In fact, the lack of offensive production pushed the Leafs to the dubious honour of last in the league in goals for. The loss marked the ninth time the club has been shutout, an NHL best. Play resembling tonight’s going forward will see the Leafs take a strong hold on that achievement, while watching another slip away in the form of playoff hope.