Game #54 Review: Toronto Maple Leafs 4 vs. Montreal Canadiens 3 (OT)

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens
Photo: Graham Hughes/Canadian Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs won their sixth in a row over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night with their most meaningful victory at the Bell Centre since the memorable 6-0 drubbing in February of 2013.

Your game in ten:

1.  This had a playoff Game 1 feel to the atmosphere, the intensity, the pace, and the overall flow to the game. The two teams charged out the gates with a frantic pace and combined for three early goals before it really tightened up as the two teams settled into the game. It was played with a good pace and intensity all the way through, but there was almost no room in the neutral zone for either side for much of the game and very little was available off the rush. Good potential playoff preview.

2.  The Canadiens maintained a territorial advantage throughout the game (53/47 on shot attempts), while the quality chances felt (while watching live) and were recorded as pretty much even (8-7 Leafs). The Canadiens as a team throw a lot of pucks at the end and crash the net hard with consistency — watching them tonight, there is no mystery as to how this team is generating offense successfully at 5v5 with their by-committee approach. They’re playing a fast and determined brand of game with a good amount of edge to their play, and they skated right with the Leafs throughout the duration of the game. While the Leafs were catching them tonight during their best stretch of the season, they did the same thing in Toronto in October (outplayed the Leafs in a Leafs OT win), so let’s give credit where it’s due.

This would certainly be a fun postseason matchup; the Leafs top-end talent should give them a discernible edge at the end of the day — and their elite-level difference makers proved the difference in overtime — but the Habs certainly don’t look like an easy out right now.

3.  While the Leafs definitely need to find another level from what they showed tonight — some of their best players weren’t at their best, be it Matthews, Kadri, Marner — what was encouraging, on the road in a tough building especially, were the immediate replies after the early 1-0 goal and then the 3-2 goal in the third. It’s a good sign of maturity for the team that they didn’t get at all rattled there. Despite falling behind in the game twice, the Leafs only trailed for a total of two and a half minutes.

4.  To the point of most of the Leafs’ best players not being their best — bottom three on the team in possession were William Nylander and Nazem Kadri at 16% and 12% CF, respectively, followed by Mitch Marner at 34%. The Kadri line got way outworked by the Habs’ line of Artturi Lehkonen, Joel Armia, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, mustering just one shot on goal in eight and a half minutes (nine against). The Matthews line fared better in the shot attempts against Max Domi’s line but were on the ice for two goals against and didn’t generate a whole lot. To me, the Marleau – Matthews – Kapanen line just lacks a natural puck carrier and play creator.

The easy move seemed to be to switch Nylander and Kapanen, but it never happened, and Babcock sounds like he’s going to stick with this for now: “I just think that line has a chance to be a real good line. We think that line can be a dominant line every night, so we need more out of the group.”

5.  An exception to that was John Tavares, who came up with two huge plays in the third period and overtime on the two Leaf goals. He batted down a puck at the blue line and put a backhand pass in behind the Habs defense for William Nylander to skate onto for the 3-3 goal and then finished with a jaw-dropping backhand for a memorable OT goal that will make plenty of plays-of-the-year highlight packs this season.

That’s 33 goals in 54 games on the season, many of them important. His sixth game-winner tonight puts him top 10 in the league (t-6th) in the league.

Sure glad the Leafs got that interview.

6.  In this type of game, it really helps when you’ve got a fourth line that is working, simplifying, getting pucks in deep, finishing checks, and going to the net hard like the Leafs’ was. Frederik Gauthier, in eight minutes and change of 5v5 ice time, finished with 76% of the shot attempts (13-5), 89% of the shots on goal (8-1) and 100% of the scoring chances (6-0). He provided a perfect screen on the Nikita Zaitsev goal and was in deep leaning on defenders down low prior to the Andreas Johnsson goal. He also won two of his three faceoffs.

7.  Par Lindholm wasn’t on the ice for the Johnsson goal, but he also finished with over 75% of the shot attempts and picked up the first assist on the Zaitsev goal. He’s fixed his issues with spacing on the penalty kill from earlier in the season and is a positive influence there with his ability to cover ice/close down and his courage to get into shot lanes (including one courageous block tonight straight to the palm of the hand). His PK metrics in the first few months weren’t great, but he’s only been on for three PK goals against and 13 high-danger chances against in 52 minutes since the start of December. That’s best among Leafs PK regulars since Dec. 1.

8.  Tyler Ennis is healthy and ready to re-enter the lineup, but it’s hard to justify dropping Gauthier out of the lineup right now, which would seemingly be the only option with the fully healthy complement (Lindholm to C, Ennis in on the LW).

With Ennis healthy — and Trevor Moore if they wanted to go that way — the Leafs have a couple of good options if they need to shake things up or take advantage of some rest games down the stretch. Patrick Marleau is the obvious candidate for the latter but there’s no way he’d want to end the ironman streak or that the Leafs would ever ask him to. But it’s something to think about in general.

Swapping Igor Ozhiganov in for Ron Hainsey makes a lot of sense, too, in the busiest stretches of schedule the rest of the way, but it seems unlikely with the PK reliance on him and the continued situational usage in key situations. Hainsey’s minutes have actually gone up since the Jake Muzzin acquisition — he’s played 20+ minutes in the last four games.

It’s Travis Dermott‘s minutes who have suffered since the Muzzin add. Just 13 minutes and change tonight and only around 16 minutes per game since the acquisition. A part of it is that Muzzin has taken over the PK minutes he was getting, but he’s had some light nights at evens, too.

9.  This sums up the situation on the Leafs power play better than I could.

10.  That was a cathartic goal/moment for William Nylander. The goal against Anaheim was nice and all, but to get a big game-tying goal in the third period in the biggest game of the season on the road in Montreal is the gust of wind he needed in his sails. That far-side low snipe off the rush is one of his favourite go-tos and a sure sign that he’s working his way back to business. Not a good overall night for his line — and irrespective of tonight’s showing from the line, Matthews-Nylander is a duo the Leafs need to get going at some point — but he’s up to seven points in his last seven games, and that’s an important individual development for the Leafs.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens

Condensed Game