Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens bend then break in 3-2 loss to Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs were deserved 3-2 winners over the Montreal Canadiens last night in a game that demonstrated the gulf in class between the two teams.

The Habs relied on a terrific performance from backup goaltender Jake Allen, two goals from Corey Perry and a dominant yet goalless second period to remain within striking distance of at least a point. But for the majority of the game the Leafs got to the middle while the Habs were funneled to the outside. In the end the better side came out on top, no matter how difficult that is for Canadiens fans to accept.

Check the math. In the standings, Toronto have 10 more wins than the Habs. Without the overtime loser point, the Canadiens would be a below .500 hockey team while the Leafs would still have 14 more wins than losses. Last night, per Natural Stat Trick, both teams had 29 shots on goal yet the Leafs had triple the high danger scoring chances at 5-on-5, 15 to 5. The season record now stands at 4-1 in favour of Toronto.

Basically, the Leafs are the best team in the NHL’s North division. On points, for one night at least, they are the best team in the entire league. Toronto have won five straight games, their backup goaltender Jack Campbell just set a franchise record for consecutive wins with 10 and they have now opened up a 7-point lead atop the Canadian division.

All those numbers indicate one thing: Toronto are simply a very talented hockey team. Add to that the fact that they were more motivated than the Habs last night and it’s no surprise that the Canadiens ended up on the losing side.

Earlier in the season, the following question was posed by your truly; What is the difference between a reason and an excuse? Many will see the acknowledgement of the Leafs superiority as the latter. After all, anything can happen in a single game. But the Habs coaching staff have many reasons to feel they have plenty to work on between now and the end of the season despite a playoff matchup against their opponent last night looking increasing likely.

The defensive pairing of Shea Weber and Joel Edmundson had one of those games that make you question how long they can continue to stay together. Within the first minute Weber’s lack of foot speed was exposed on Auston Matthews’ opener. Edmundson did make some Herculean blocks in the first period as the Habs collapsed around Allen to prevent Toronto from capitalizing on all of their offensive zone time. But both defencemen were slow to pucks and hemmed in repeatedly for long stretches in their own zone. Add to that their inability to break out with control and it’s clear there was little they got right.

Despite winning four out of their last five going into last night’s game against the Leafs, the Habs power play has dried up of late. Even worse, it was a momentum killer in crucial moments against Toronto. Late in the second period the man advantage could have been the payoff for great offensive work with only one high danger scoring chance to show for it. Midway through the third and down 3-1 it could have been the platform for the Habs comeback. Instead it was the confirmation of their offensive ineptitude on the night as they were unable to even generate a shot on goal. The Canadiens have manoeuvred through the last five games with only a single goal on the man advantage. It finally cost them when they needed it most.

He may not have got much accomplished on the power play but Jesperi Kotkaniemi certainly answered the bell in his first NHL game as a right winger, especially in the physicality department. Yet he can’t be the answer there at the expense of Tyler Toffoli and Jonathan Drouin, two of the Habs best offensive players. Eric Staal struggled to keep up which is understandable as he works back into game shape. The expectations for him when he was acquired from Buffalo was to be an above average faceoff guy who could contribute more offensively than Jake Evans. Not to be the fourth most used forward on the team’s second line. Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme may be experimenting while dealing with the Habs injury problems. But it’s hard to imagine that on most nights Staal will be a better player down the middle than Kotkaniemi, who continues to fuse confidence and belief with his natural gifts.

The Canadiens will need to find a way to cope with arguably their most difficult back-to-back of the season tonight against the rested Winnipeg Jets. With plenty to improve upon from their uneven performance against the Leafs. Starting with digging deep and giving their maximum effort for 60 minutes. Only then can they be satisfied and let the chips fall where they may. Something they can’t say about their game at Scotiabank arena last night.

PLAYER RATINGS

Goaltender

Jake Allen – 8/10

Should have done better on Matthews’ opener as he got beat far side on the wrap around. But without him the game would have been out of reach by the end of the first period. Continued to impress in the third. Best of the bunch was a moving right pad save on Matthews to keep the score at 2-1. Needs some run support.
 

Defencemen

Shea Weber – 5/10

Somehow looked slower against Marner and Matthews than versus McDavid and Draisaitl. Defensively dominated several times in both the first and third periods. Wayward passing either led to turnovers in the offensive zone or abandoned for a desperation chip out of the zone. Did next to nothing on the power play but he wasn’t the only one.

 

Joel Edmundson – 6/10

Highlight of his night offensively was hitting the crossbar in the third. Made some crucial blocks in the first period especially on both the 5-on-4 and 5-on-3 penalty kills. But he and Weber struggled repeatedly to work out how to dissect the Leafs forecheck.

 

Jeff Petry – 7/10

Really the only Habs defenceman who was an effective outlet going forward. Caused the Leafs some serious problems in the second when he activated down into the zone. But Toronto did a good job limiting any kind of quality offense from nearly everyone on the blueline. Led the back end in shots on goal and hits.

 

Brett Kulak – 6/10

Terrific stretch pass to Drouin for a partial break. But defensively got bullied too often in his own zone on the cycle. Never really got the chance to support the attack in the offensive zone. A less noticeable game from him than we’ve seen of late.

 

Alexander Romanov – 7/10

Played with a lot of poise and confidence. Not sure if Ducharme will trust him before the end of the season to play with Weber but a couple more games like that from the captain alongside Edmundson and he’ll have no choice. One of the few who made smart plays to break out of his own zone. Willing to drive deep into the Leafs zone but couldn’t make the final pass or play to generate a scoring chance. But another positive step.

 

Victor Mete – 5/10

Only played a little over eleven minutes of ice time and a quieter game from him than we’ve seen in a little bit. Didn’t get many chances to show off his speed. Rating may seem harsh but it was his inexplicable kicking of the puck into the slot that led to Barrie’s goal to take the lead in the third. But all in all wasn’t terrible. Just made one costly bad decision.

 

Forwards

Nick Suzuki – 6/10

Habs most used forward kicked off the offense with a poised pass to Perry for his first. Made some inventive plays to try and get the equalizer with the net empty. But in between those two moments didn’t make all that much happen. Less than 50 percent on faceoffs and part of a putrid power play.
 

Josh Anderson – 6/10

Played with some serious anger throughout the night and was one of the few to give consistent effort in all three zones. But like most of his teammates his three shots on goal weren’t particularly threatening. No real chance to gallop down the wing and make a power move to the inside. Did pick up an assist on Perry’s second. But like Suzuki his offensive effectiveness lacked consistency. 
 

Corey Perry – 9/10

Sneaky and skilled move to open the five-hole on Campbell for his first. One of the few who went to the front of the net and stayed there. Quick hands in tight responsible for his second of the game. Drew both Leafs penalties on the night for good measure. On pace for 25 goals over an 82-game season. Second most used forward. 
 

Eric Staal – 5/10

Caused a few problems along the boards in the second to keep the pressure on the Leafs. Made one nice pass to Toffoli for a chance in the first. But he constantly looked like the slowest guy on the ice. Again, understandable as he keeps working himself back into shape after his layoff. Defensively his line got owned in their own zone. Ducharme’s usage of him was a bit confusing. His play didn’t deserve the ice time he received. 
 

Jonathan Drouin – 5/10

Admitted post game that his lack of goals of late is getting to him. Looked pretty short on confidence when he took his shot on an odd man break. Had more time and his shot turned out to be an easy one for Campbell to handle. Could have been a turning point in the game. Less said about what anyone did on the power play, the better. Going through his first difficult stretch of the season. Didn’t hve his legs last night. 
 

Tyler Toffoli – 6/10

Looked the most threatening of all his linemates but not by much. Had a half chance in the first stopped by Campbell. Was particularly noticeable the final five minutes of the game but too little, too late. Surgical with his stick in the second in terms of knocking pucks down to create turnovers. Couldn’t get inside or find enough space to let off a real threatening shot. Silent on the power play. 
 

Phillip Danault – 6/10

Had the chance to get the puck out on Matthews’ early goal but stick checked by Mikheyev. Really solid on the penalty kill. Effectively cycled the puck in the offensive zone. Did as good as a job as you can expect when matched up against Matthews. Never looked like he was going to generate a goal though.
 

Tomas Tatar – 7/10

Really the only Habs forward who seemed to find soft spots in the Leafs defensive coverage. Just couldn’t make the most of those limited opportunities. His line didn’t really miss a beat with Kotkaniemi there instead of Gallagher. Had some momentum building shifts in the second period but nothing came of them. But like most of his teammates couldn’t get into many threatening positions. 
 

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 7/10

Has nothing to dowith his play last night but get the man back in the middle. Played a very physical game especially below the goal line in both the offensive and defensive zones. Somehow squandered a terrific chance in the third from in the slot. Did a solid job protecting the puck along the boards. Nothing on the power play. But looked like the forward most likely to score. 

Jake Evans – 5/10

Played less than 10 minutes. Hard to affect the game with such little ice time. Took a necessary penalty in the first to deny a goal scoring opportunity but it did send the Leafs to a 5-on-3. Couldn’t impact the game. 
 

Artturi Lehkonen – 5/10

A rare anonymous night from him. Don’t remember many times he got in on the forecheck or disrupted play in the neutral zone, which is what he does when he’s at his best. No real scoring chances either against or for.
 

Paul Byron – 5/10

See Lehkonen, Artturi. Just a really quiet night from everyone on the fourth line, including him. But he was out there. Maybe showed off his speed once or twice but that was it. 
 

Coach

Dominique Ducharme – 6/10

His team got totally dominated in the first period. Too many men on the ice penalty didn’t help the cause. The power play has been listless of late and it continued to disappoint last night. Using Kotkaniemi on the wing looked good but the line he should have been on if he was playing centre really struggled. Doubt he’ll change much when it comes to the lineup until his players start getting healthy but should consider breaking up Weber and Edmundson during the game when they struggle.

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