Hockey

Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens Recap

Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (88) takes a shot on goal while under pressure from Montreal Canadiens forward Cole Caufield (22) during second period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 13, 2021. (Evan Buhler/CP)

The Toronto Maple Leafs opened their season at home against the Montreal Canadiens. It was a rematch of last years’ first round playoff series. The Leafs grabbed a 3-1 series lead, but lost 3 games in a row for another first-round exit. The Habs, on the other hand, rode that momentum all the way to the Cup finals. However, Montreal did end up losing to the Lightning in 5 games.

Despite all of that, excitement for the game was high. Fans are allowed back in arenas in Ontario for the first time since March 10, 2020. In front of a packed house, the Leafs wanted to make a statement that this was a new year. And of course, exact a little revenge. The Canadiens, on the other hand, wanted to silence the crowd and show last seasons’ run was no fluke. In the end, the game turned out to be relatively uneventful. After a slow start, Toronto rallied enough to squeak out a 2-1 home victory. 

Early Struggles

Though the puck dropped on time, the Maple Leafs appeared to not get the memo. They were sloppy and slow, making questionable decisions with the puck and losing races. Montreal generated the game’s first chance just a couple minutes in. Montreal’s Christian Dvorak carried the puck to center ice, then sent it into Toronto’s zone with a hard dump-in. Winning the race, Josh Anderson of the Habs corralled the puck and took a heavy shot from point-blank range. Toronto’s Jack Campbell, however, was equal to the task, making a huge save to keep the game scoreless.

Campbell was brilliant in net early, and he needed to be. The Canadiens controlled play early, while Toronto could not establish their offense. The Leafs got the first power play of the game after a hooking call to Montreal’s Ben Chiarot. However, Toronto could not gain the offensive zone cleanly and generated no scoring chances. Not long after, Montreal capitalized on a Jake Muzzin neutral zone turnover for the game’s first goal. Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin took a feed from Josh Anderson off of a 2-on-1, and buried it into the open net. Drouin makes his return to the Canadiens lineup after checking himself into the player assistance program last year. He was open about his struggles with mental health that caused him to seek help throughout the off-season. For him to get the first goal of Montreal’s season was a special moment.

The Rebound

Toronto needed a spark, and they found one halfway through the first period. After a net-front scramble, Pierre Engvall buried a shot past goaltender Jake Allen to tie the game. From there, Toronto found life.

The Leafs controlled play for much of the second, but neither team could break the tie. Early in the third period, however, William Nylander went top shelf with a brilliant shot to give Toronto the lead. Nylander was one of Toronto’s most dangerous forwards all game, and it was nice to see him rewarded. 

Not long after, the Leafs got into some penalty trouble. Jason Spezza and Mitch Marner took back-to-back tripping minors, giving Montreal a two-man advantage. The Leafs were able to kill off the 5-on-3 thanks to the clutch play of Justin Holl. Holl blocked a shot labeled for the back of the net, as well as getting several big zone clearances. 

Though Montreal continued to press for the equalizer, Jack Campbell continued his brilliant play to secure the win. Campbell ended the game with 31 saves, and was named the second star of the game.

Toronto Maple Leafs Takeaways

Despite getting the win, Toronto still has plenty to work on to improve. The slow start was alarming. Though the Leafs have the firepower to outscore their problems, that will not fly once the playoffs hit. And playoff success is what this season will be judged on in Toronto. The regular season will be one big tune-up to work out the kinks before the real task begins. After five consecutive first-round exits, big changes will come for this team if a round is not won.

Apart from the slow start, Toronto’s power play was concerning as well. The Leafs had three power play opportunities, but consistently had trouble gaining the offensive zone. Additionally, Toronto may have a problem with the third defensive pairing. The Rasmus Sandin/Travis Dermott pairing was noticeably bad all game. They are both young and will improve as the season goes on, but their inability to break out the puck was concerning.

There were some bright spots for the Toronto Maple Leafs. As mentioned before, Jack Campbell was incredible. This was Campbell’s first season-opener start of his career, and he impressed. He held this team in while they figured out their game, as well as coming up clutch to seal the win. The third line of David Kampf, Pierre Engvall,  and Ondrej Kase was huge as well. They controlled play and generated chances every time they were on the ice. Additionally, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe rewarded them by putting the line out to close out the game. Having a line that can do that when the top players have an off night will be key to playoff success. 

Montreal Takeaways

The Canadiens started this game strong. Josh Anderson showed that he can be a force in the offensive zone. Anderson is a rare combination of size, speed, and skill that can be nightmare-inducing for opposing teams. Consistency will be the key for him though.

Cole Caufield also showed he will be a problem for opposing teams. His lethal shot has been well-documented, but tonight he generated offense with his skating as well. Caufield was able to split the Toronto defense on a few occasions. Additionally, Caufield employed shot fakes to freeze defenders and set up teammates. This displays a keen hockey sense that will make Caufield a dangerous offensive threat.

Despite a lackluster showing on 4 power play opportunities, Montreal’s penalty kill was strong. The Habs were aggressive on the kill, pressuring puck carriers consistently. This led to mistakes by the Leafs, as well as disrupting Toronto’s attempts to set up their power play.

Final Thoughts

Despite the above observations, it is important to remember this is game one of an 82-game season. These teams will look drastically different come April. There will be time to work out the kinks in their games. Players will get hot, others will have down seasons. Both teams are missing key players. Carey Price is rehabbing a knee injury, as well as checking himself into the NHL’s Player Assistance Program. The timeline for his return is unknown. The Leafs are missing reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews. Matthews is still recovering from off-season wrist surgery, and is expected to miss at least the first week of the season. These players alone change the outlook of their respective teams.

After a pair of wild seasons, we’re back to a regular NHL schedule. This is the first night of a long and exciting season. Let’s enjoy it.

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