The Toronto Maple Leafs overcame a slow start and completed a memorable comeback in an emotional win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.

First Period

The Leafs came out of the gate with a lot of the desperation that had been lacking in recent games. Entering the game on a season-high three game losing skid, it was a refreshing sight and it resulted in some great looks early on.

This was the story of the game for the first eight minutes as both teams traded chances with a fun early pace to the night. The Leafs began pulling ahead in the scoring chances, including some high percentage looks.

Unfortunately for Toronto, a little against the run of play, the Canadiens struck first after Andrew Shaw banged in a loose puck in front for his third goal against the Leafs this season.

As the period progressed, the Canadiens were emboldened by the early goal and ramped up the pressure, using their dogged puck pursuit to force a series of turnovers from the Leafs in dangerous areas of the ice. One turnover from Frederik Gauthier resulted in this amazing feed from Jeff Petry setting up Tomas Tatar to fire home a wrister in tight that Frederik Andersen couldn’t stop, extending the lead to two.

Moments later, the Canadiens got a power-play after Travis Dermott went to the box for tripping. It didn’t take long for Montreal to take full advantage of their opportunity thanks to this well-placed shot from Petry, who was having his way with the Leafs in the first 20 minutes.

That would be the story of the period for both teams. After a strong opening passage for the Leafs, Montreal used their speed on the forecheck and structure through the neutral zone to force some bad puck management out of the Leafs in both the neutral zone and defensive end. Not only did the Canadiens grab three quick goals because of it, they also generated three consecutive power-play chances.

One of the few bright spots in this period was the play of William Nylander, who was again lining up down the middle. For the second consecutive game, he looked comfortable in his new role.

With the Scotiabank Arena stunned into silence, the Leafs entered the first intermission down 3-0 with just a 9.58% chance of winning the game according to MoneyPuck.

Second Period

Roughly two minutes into the period, Toronto grabbed the crucial next goal.

The Leafs power-play finally sprung to life and it couldn’t have come at a better time in the season. Some good work down low by Tavares and Marner created some space up high and the Leafs moved the puck quickly enough over to Matthews to give him the time to step into one and solve Carey Price yet again.

Matthews is definitely living rent-free in Price’s head at this point; he’s beaten Price in so many different ways and it seems like Price has no idea what Matthews is going to do with his release.

Following the goal, the Leafs started to grab back some momentum and began to pile on the pressure offensively. One particular moment that stood out was this sequence from Tyler Ennis behind the Canadiens net.

This was Ennis’ third game back in the lineup since suffering his ankle injury back in December, and tonight was his best of the three by a country mile. On this particular play, he does a good job protecting the puck with traffic along the boards, and it nearly results in a tap-in for Par Lindholm.

Ennis has been a useful depth piece when healthy this season; while he obviously lacks for size, he’s really skilled, plays with courage, and can be really effective down low when he’s using his waterbug agility to get defensemen turning and scrambling.

As the period progressed, the Canadiens began to generate some quality chances of their own.

The mental composure of Andersen in making all of these saves in desperation mode after conceding three in the first period alone was huge. He made a couple of big saves — including one notable one on Brendan Gallagher point blank — with the game at 3-0 and 3-1 that kept his team in it with a fighting chance.

You had to think back to those saves when Leafs converted on their second power-power play of the period to officially make it ‘game on.’

Similar to the previous goal, the unit that came out second on the Leafs power play converted. The Leafs’ puck speed and movement off the puck led to Ennis’ first goal in over two months, and it was a big one.

Third Period

Similar to the opening frame, the Leafs began the third period with a lot of desperation in their game and it resulted in a barrage of early chances. Matthews was really leading the charge with some determined battles and power moves like this one:

The really encouraging sign here is that Matthews seems to be back to driving the net like this, an element of his game that had been sporadic at best for a long period following the injury he suffered at the hands of Jacob Trouba back in October.

Minutes later, Matthews again made his physical presence felt.

At times, fans don’t fully appreciate the fact that Matthews possesses an elite skill inside a 6’3” and 223-pound body and the advantages that frame affords him. While mixing it up away from the puck isn’t his usual proclivity (probably for the best), this was a stark reminder of just how powerful Matthews is — up against an intimidating man mountain in Weber no less — and it was a sure sign that the Leafs were digging deep to complete the come back in an important Saturday night rivalry game.

The Leafs continued to apply the pressure and kept the Canadiens on their heels for the opening few minutes of the third, but it was a bizarre bounce that led to a whole new game at 3-3:

Nylander won’t score many easier goals than this, but there’s no doubt he’s earned a break or two like this over his last 10-15 games.

Once the game was knotted up at three, both teams picked up the pace and the intensity ramped up. To their credit, Montreal was generating some quality chances off the cycle and forced Andersen into some more important saves. The Canadiens’ fourth power-play opportunity of the game then resulted in some thrilling hockey, with chances at both ends.

As regulation time wound down, the emotions began to boil over, with Max Domi at the middle of it all.

The Bruins’ points streak is making the odds quite a bit longer, but the end of this game especially left both fan bases dying for a round-one matchup. The last two games of the season series have been barn burners played with a fantastic pace and animosity.

The Leafs got the last laugh with the game-winner as local GTA kid Zach Hyman played Saturday night hero against the Habs.

Fellow local kid Mitch Marner was clearly making a concerted effort to shoot the puck more in this game after passing up some great looks versus Washington on Thursday, and while a few times his pass-shot selection seemed off, the willingness to just put pucks at the net paid off in a big way here, with tons of credit going to Hyman for doing what Hyman does so consistently — going to the dirty areas with reckless abandon.

The Leafs then rubbed the Habs’ nose in it with a couple of empty-net goals.

With that, the Leafs closed out their most entertaining comeback of the season and are now within three points (with a game in hand) of catching the Boston Bruins for second in the Atlantic Division.

Clip of the Night

Notable Stats

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Locations

Post Game Notes

  • This felt like it could have the potential to be a real turning-point victory and ‘coming-together’ moment for the team. Not that there was ever real reason to panic, but the timing of this kind of galvanizing win was helpful on a couple of fronts. You have to trust Kyle Dubas to understand something as basic as recency bias and not let fan-base frustration affect his decision-making, but it no doubt creates an easier climate to be operating in at the trade deadline. You never want to make deals out of a sense that you “have” to do something.
  • Auston Matthews had quite the night in this one and really threw the team on his back at points. The goal he scored early in the second that ultimately started the comeback was a vintage wrist-shot from the high circle, but he was competing as well as he has over 200 feet all year and tilting the ice for him and his linemates Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. As mentioned earlier, his determination in his one-on-one battles and in his play along the boards were standouts. His line was a little underwhelming according to the underlying metrics, as they posted a 45.16 CF%, a 31.25 SF%, a 20.00 SCF%, a 14.29 HDCF%, and a team-worst 1.51 xGA at 5v5. While there is still more work needed and chemistry to develop to make this line a consistent threat, there were flashes of the potential here.
  • No line for the Leafs was more effective at controlling the play on the night than the John Tavares line. The last 40 minutes featured a really good collective push from the Leafs’ star core in Marner, Tavares, Nylander and Matthews. At 5v5, Tavares’ line posted a 0.98 xGF%, a 55.88 CF%, a 70.29 SF%, and a 57.15 HDCF%. While the offense did not translate until late in the third period, Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Zach Hyman were really strong in the offensive end in generating chances off the cycle, taking advantage of the Canadiens mistakes, and transitioning on the counter-attack. They could have had more on the score sheet than they ended with, but it was an all-around strong showing for the line that had not been itself for a little while.
  • While he didn’t have his best showing of this recent stretch of games, William Nylander again demonstrated he can handle center duties capably. That line didn’t look like much going into the night — with Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown on the wings — knowing the recent offensive form of his linemates, but it was an effective trio when it came to possessing the puck, working off the cycle, and generating scoring chances. Nylander’s two point-performance gives him 10 points in his past 13 games.
  • As mentioned above, Frederik Andersen‘s 99th win as a Toronto Maple Leaf passed John Ross Roach for eighth on the all-time franchise wins leaders. He came up with key save after key save at important times in the game to keep the Leafs within striking distance. In a strange way, there is something that is even more impressive when a goalie has a flurry of goals go by him early (none his fault) and he is able to reset mentally, make the next save, stem the bleeding, and keep his team in the game. It goes down as a 3.0 GA night with a .914 save percentage, but it was one of his most impressive showings of the season.
  • Before we call it for this review, another shoutout to Tyler Ennis. Being able to throw different looks at a team is important in terms of roster construction in the playoffs, and having players with similar sizes and playing similar styles makes it easy to game plan and defend. A small winger like Ennis doesn’t seem like it provides much of a different element on the surface, but the fact he’s so small and agile gives defenders difficulty figuring out how to play against him. His turning radius is so small, he’s closer to the ice than everyone else, and he’s harder to get a hold of with his ability to change direction so quickly. There are downsides to it — it’s easy to push him off the puck if you get him contained — but his competitiveness is infectious out there.

Condensed Game