The top two teams in the Canadian Division faced off tonight.

Montreal controlled the first two periods in shot attempts and scoring chances, although the high-danger chance count remained low and even throughout the contest. With a late second-period breakthrough followed by an early-third-period push, the Leafs, propelled by two 4-on-4 goals, were able to secure their 11th victory in 14 games.

The final score was 4-2 Leafs, but this was certainly a tightly-contested one-goal game on the merits, and the Leafs padded their win with a late empty netter.

The Leafs will want to generate more sustained offensive pushes in the first 40 minutes in Saturday’s rematch rather than leave it as late on as they have in their last two wins, while continuing to build on this kind of clean defensive effort. The Leafs generated just 12 shots on goal in the opening two periods.

We’ll start by grading the players who performed best in this game. Just keep in mind the boxscore wasn’t always indicative of how the teams or players played at even strength.

5/5 Stars

Game Puck: Justin Holl (RD, #3) — I can’t get over how well he’s been able to defend the rush against some of the NHL’s best forwards. Here’s a great example of what makes Holl such an effective transition defender.

Holl stays with his man at first, then realizes a drop pass is coming on the ensuing 3-on-2. He gets his stick in the right spot and breaks up the rush. This is just one isolated play, but Holl does this kind of thing all the time. It’s what makes him so effective.

He also beat Carey Price clean with a clapper in the third period.

It’s so important for NHL defensemen to skate their way into the middle of the ice. Your chances of getting the puck through go way up, as does your “expected” shooting percentage. Holl stacked the deck in his favour here and it paid off.

With the way he’s been impacting the game at both ends this season, it’s really helped solidify Toronto’s top four to the point that we’re no longer talking about them trading for a defenceman. Now it’s a top-six winger everyone wants.

4/5 Stars

Auston Matthews (C, #34) — Watching the development of Matthews’ game from a teenager to now at age 23 has been pretty interesting. We’ve seen him add a one-timer to his arsenal offensively; improve his defensive game last season; now he’s throwing his weight around on puck retrievals. For a 6’3, 220lb athlete who’s relied primarily on his skill to impact winning, it’s been fun to watch Matthews commit more physically when he’s engaging in puck battles.

The other part of his game that’s really impressed me is his passing out of tight spaces in the defensive zone. On breakouts, Matthews often singlehandedly takes the puck out of dangerous spots and saucer-passes his teammates into open ice. That’s how Zach Hyman scored his empty-net goal (and also because he’s Zach Hyman).

Matthews is also a better passer offensively than we tend to recognize. He nut-megged Alexander Romanov with a pass between the defender’s skates and onto William Nylander’s tape for a one-timer that just missed the net. This easily could have been a multiple-assist game for Matthews, and it wasn’t even his offense that impressed me the most.

Frederik Andersen (G, #31) — It started off poorly for Andersen, allowing a goal on a save-able Josh Anderson wrister from a bad angle. Shortly after that, he misplayed a puck behind the net and fell on his backside. Three minutes into the game, it was looking like a dud.

Then Andersen stopped 29 of Montreal’s next 30 shots, securing the win for his team. The goal support in the third period certainly helped, but the game could have gone differently had it not been for Andersen’s sharp play.

Travis Dermott (LD, #23) — I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to play well at even strength and still get healthy scratched. I also can’t imagine how good it must feel to score your first goal in 13 months when you get thrown back into the lineup.

Let’s face it, goal-scoring isn’t what Dermott brings to the table. It’s his ability to go back on loose pucks, make the first guy miss, and get the puck going up the ice. Another thing he does well is keep plays alive in the offensive zone. I’m sure everyone’s sick of hearing me talk about his gap control, so don’t take my word for it.

Read JFresh’s latest article on Dermott if you have a subscription to EP Rinkside. It’s worth your time (and money) if you can afford it in these tough times.

I’ll die on the hill that Travis Dermott is an effective NHL defenseman at even strength. If Zach Bogosian becomes the reason you can’t get him enough ice time, I think you’re making a mistake.

3/5 Stars

Ilya Mikheyev (RW, #65) — He finally got one!

Of course, Ilya Mikheyev’s first goal of the season comes on a play where his teammate accidentally passed him the puck. It couldn’t have come on one of his many breakaways this season, including one tonight when he dropped his shoulder to get around the defender, then put the puck multiple feet wide on the finish.

I’m a huge fan of Mikheyev’s game; his motor without the puck has a lot of value defensively. When he fumbles the puck on a 3-on-1 rush, though, it starts to make you wonder if he should be playing with the team’s best playmakers. Maybe this hard-earned goal gets him going.

Zach Hyman (LW, #11) — He’s become known for his puck-retrieval duties in the offensive zone. Watching him closely every game, it’s fun to guess what “move” he’s going to make on the defencemen going back on the loose puck.

Will he drop his shoulder and try to gain inside leverage? Is he looking to plow the guy right through the boards? What about a little spin move? He has all the tricks in the book that you’re looking for in an effective F1 forechecker.

Zach Bogosian (RD, #22) — As much as I get frustrated when Bogosian bobbles a loose puck in the corner or misses an easy pass out of the zone, he provides legitimate value in the defensive zone.

Sometimes we tend to overrate a player’s ability to “clear the front of the net” – Roman Polak comes to mind. When I’m watching Bogosian, though, I find that he’s much better than your typical brute at taking away passing lanes in front. It provides the team with noticeably better stability in defensive-zone coverage.

The 4th Line — I really like what Nic Petan brings to the lineup from a creativity standpoint. His ability to spread the ice with his passing gives Toronto’s fourth line much more of an offensive punch than we’ve seen with other combinations.

Considering how much the third line has been struggling offensively this season, I don’t hate that idea.

Travis Boyd continues to set up behind the net in the offensive zone and look for those dangerous passes out front, which I love. I don’t love the fact that he’s been getting outshot at even strength consistently for the past few games. That’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

Jason Spezza had a great chance to beat Price after a cross-seam pass from Rielly, but he wasn’t quite able to find the angle and ended up hitting the outside of the post. He had a good penalty-killing shift as well. Otherwise, it was a pretty quiet night for him.

The Zone Entry Wizards — It felt right to group William Nylander and Mitch Marner together tonight. Both players were able to generate a few quality chances. Nylander’s best play came at 4-on-4, where he was able to get the puck back for his team with an aggressive forecheck, which led to Dermott’s goal shortly afterward. Marner has been looking to shoot the puck much more often lately, almost fooling Carey Price with a strong-side wrister on the power play.

That said, neither player was able to take over the game in transition. Claude Julien’s teams have historically defended the neutral zone at an elite level, making it very difficult for puck carriers to weave their way through traffic.

Then again, it’s Nylander and Marner’s job to create chances off the rush. Defences at every level try to trap up high-skill players.

2/5 Stars

John Tavares (C, #91) — In a similar vein, it’s John Tavares’ job to dominate at even strength. There aren’t many players who can drive a line against top competition regardless of who their linemates are. There are even fewer who also average a point per game, which is why Tavares makes so much money. He’s worth it.

He didn’t provide that type of value at 5v5 tonight, although he did generate a few chances. He also won a few battles on the 4v4 shift leading to the Dermott goal.

I’d just like to see more from Tavares; offensively and defensively. We know he’s capable of it.

The Third Line — Shockingly, the combination of Engvall-Kerfoot-Vesey wasn’t able to create much offense against the Montreal Canadiens. Alex Kerfoot overskated a puck on the defensive-zone wall, leading to a penalty against. He also flubbed a good scoring chance in the third period (and this time his whiff didn’t set up a teammate on a platter like on the Mikheyev goal), but he did show good composure with the puck in the defensive zone to help the team out of a few jams.

Pierre Engvall showed off his skating ability by carrying the puck up the ice in transition, but he’s really been struggling to create anything dangerous after gaining the zone. Much like Kasperi Kapanen, Engvall’s raw tools allow him to transport the puck from defense to offense, but his ability to break down an NHL defense off the rush just isn’t there.

Jimmy Vesey actually made a nice pass to Kerfoot off the rush in this game, giving me one more positive on him than I’m used to making in these report cards. It’s also worth noting that Vesey is trusted in late-game situations when the Leafs are holding a third-period lead. I can understand why; he has a good stick in the defensive zone.

The Rielly-Brodie Pair — It’s concerning how often these two have been getting outshot on a nightly basis. There’s certainly value in collapsing defensively to prevent passes through the middle of the ice, but at some point, you need to get the puck back and start moving it in the right direction.

On plays where Rielly gets a chance to activate off the rush, he still looks as dangerous as ever.

The issue is that he’s been spending too much time in his own end throughout his career, and that trend has continued into this year despite playing with a $5 million defense partner who has been pretty steady and consistent.

1/5 Stars

Jake Muzzin (LD, #8) — This is one of the weirder games I’ve come across in my time evaluating Maple Leaf players.

Muzzin ended the game with three assists, but if you go back and watch each goal, it’s hard to find a moment where he “broke down” the defense. He also got filled in at even strength; the Canadiens out-chanced the Leafs 11-2 when Muzzin was on the ice.

I didn’t mention the pairing’s poor 5v5 results in Holl’s section because I thought it was mostly his partner’s fault. Muzzin was really struggling to make plays up the ice early in the game, specifically this turnover that resulted in an odd-man rush.

Sometimes good players have bad games.

Heat Map

Here’s a quick look at where each team’s shots were coming from at even strength, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

Scoring chances refer to anything from the top of the circles and in, creating that “home plate” shape you’ve probably seen on the broadcasts.

  • 1st Period: 7-4 Montreal
  • 2nd Period 12-6 Montreal
  • 3rd Period: 6-3 Toronto

The slower starts, followed by flipping a switch in the third, are a two-game trend the Leafs will be looking to reverse on Saturday.

Game Score

Game score is a metric developed by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn to measure single-game performance. You can read more about it here.

Final Grade: B-