TORONTO – One and done.
Entering Saturday night’s showdown of the North Division’s best, that is how the Montreal Canadiens lamented their limited offensive chances against this defensively conscious edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Leaving Scotiabank Arena, however, it was the Maple Leafs who could blame one-and-done for their 2-1 loss at home and a fizzling conclusion to an 8-0-1 cross-country rip that had vaulted them to the top of league standings.
As in one goal and… silence.
Things started so promising for the hometown heroes that coach Sheldon Keefe thought it was “bizarre” how their rhythm and momentum dissipated so quick and so long.
Auston Matthews picked Phillip Danault’s pocket behind the net on an early forecheck and fed Mitch Marner in the slot to give Toronto the lead at the 3:36 mark, and the Leafs dominated play for the bulk of the first frame.
Then Carey Price happened.
The Canadiens goaltender — whose numbers have slipped below those of backup Jake Allen through the quarter mark of the season — was flawless for the next 56-plus minutes. Price denied Marner thrice, John Tavares four times, and Auston Matthews five times, once racing out of his crease to nullify a Matthews breakaway attempt.
Frustration switched sweaters.
“He’s just like a third defenceman back there,” said Matthews, who did extend his point streak to 12 games. “On our dumps and rims, we just couldn’t keep it away from Price. That’s what really puts him above everybody else in this league.
“It’s difficult to create offence when we’re not keeping the puck away from him and they’re just breaking out smoothly every time.”
Keefe lamented the first period’s missed opportunities to put the match away, figuring the score could’ve been 2-0 or 3-0 after 20 minutes.
“We had more than enough offence there in the first to blow the game wide open and didn’t capitalize or didn’t go our way. Our game was a mess from there,” Keefe said.
“I’m not sure whether that discouraged us or maybe made us think it was going to be a little bit easier night.”
Nothing was easy at either end, as the officials tucked their whistles and both squads did an admirable job of limiting odd-man rushes and keeping threats to the outside.
The Maple Leafs threw themselves in front of pucks, blocking an uncharacteristically high 21 shots. Montreal threw the body, outhitting Toronto 46-16.
“That was a factor in the game, for sure,” Keefe said. “They were probably a little frustrated with the way the game started, and they just started to focus on physicality. I do think that’s part of what just made us tired and had us playing on the back half of our shift tired. We had real long shift lengths and stuff like that where we just couldn’t get off the ice, couldn’t string together passes.”
After the first, Toronto was unable to build momentum through positive shifts, and Marner admitted the Leafs extended shifts in hopes of offensive chances.
“As the game went on, we got too cute with it,” Marner said. “We got away from what made us successful. We weren’t hard on the forecheck.
“We had shifts where we were getting hemmed in our D-zone.”
It was a tight, greasy, bruisy affair.
In other words: a brand of hockey built for Brendan Gallagher.
Gallagher helped spark a passing sequence that led to Tyler Toffoli’s tying goal early in the third. Then he knocked down a Jeff Petry point shot and whacked home the winner with less than four minutes left in regulation.
“You just want to reward your goaltender when he makes that many big saves to keep you in it.” Gallagher said.
The side that wanted this one more and needed this one more was rewarded.
“You’re going to see a different team tonight,” Montreal defenceman Joel Edmundson had promised after the morning skate.
Boy, was he correct.
For one, Habs coach Claude Julien scratched 2019-20’s leading scorer Tomas Tatar. Price delivered a vintage performance. And there was a leave-it-all-out-there effort befitting of a club that had lost three of four and was staring at a rare six-day break.
“They came in with a sense of urgency with the way the last few games have gone for them,” Tavares said.
The Maple Leafs will be granted a prime opportunity to wash out the “sour taste” (Matthews’ phrase) of this loss next week as they host the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators for a three-game set Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
One and done could well describe Toronto’s losing skid.
“A lot of things have been going our way here for a long while,” Keefe said. “Today it didn’t, and we didn’t help our own cause.”
ONE-TIMERS: A healthy Nick Robertson, Rasmus Sandin and Adam Books will join the Toronto Marlies on their trip to Winnipeg next week in order to get some game action…. If Joe Thornton (rib) responds well to Sunday’s practice, he could be available as early as Monday…. Tavares responded to Elliotte Friedman’s report that he and friend Sam Gagner are in the process of taking over operations for the GTHL’s Toronto Marlboros. “It’s still kind of in the process, so I don’t want to get too much into it,” Tavares said. “Sam approached me when the opportunity presented itself to him in the off-season. When the time’s right and the process plays out, we’ll have more of a formal update on it. But obviously, the organization means a lot to us.”