By Nick Richard
February 24, 2019
It’s always special when two of hockey’s most storied franchises go toe to toe on a Saturday night. It’s even more special when both teams are in the thick of the playoff race and you can feel the disdain from both sides. That was the case on Saturday night as the Maple Leafs battled back from an early 3-0 deficit and scored 6 unanswered goals to come away with their seventh consecutive victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
Coming off of their first three game losing streak of the season, things started poorly for the Leafs again and they were down 3 goals before the first period was finished. The Canadiens relied on speed and a strong forecheck in being credited with 10 high danger scoring chances to just 2 for the Leafs in the period and it looked as though they were going to run away with this one.
The language was likely a tad more colourful than that in the Leafs room but whatever was said during the first intermission worked and the Leafs came out with renewed sense of composure to start the second. After being rewarded with an early power play, Auston Matthews continued his dominant play against the Canadiens, and Carey Price in particular, by firing a bullet between the goalie’s legs and into the back of the net for his 29th goal of the season to give his Leafs a bit of life. Just minutes later, Freddy Andersen made up for his own undisciplined penalty in the first period by helping along a goaltender interference call a little bit to put the Leafs back on the power play. This time it was William Nylander orchestrating the play by calling for Ennis to get the puck up top to Gardiner and over to him on the opposite wall. Nylander proceeded to unleash a quick slap pass down low to Patrick Marleau who read the play beautifully and quickly dished a cross-crease pass to a streaking Tyler Ennis for a perfectly executed power play goal and suddenly we had a game on our hands. Aside from the Leafs capitalizing on their only two power play opportunities of the game, much of the second period was played to a stalemate with high danger chances favouring the Habs at just 3-2.
The tension began to rise in the final frame, starting with a battle between two absolute horses in Auston Matthews and Habs captain Shea Weber where Matthews showed some rare physicality in throwing Weber to the ice.
Shortly thereafter, for whatever reason, Andreas Johnsson seemed to draw the ire of the Canadiens and Max Domi in particular. The two young forwards were jawing at each other prior to a neutral zone faceoff and it looked as though Domi was attempting to bait Johnsson into dropping the gloves by delivering three or four solid cross checks when the puck was dropped. Johnsson wasn’t interested, and rightfully so considering his team had scored two straight goals and was pushing for the tying marker. Not to mention it would have been his first career fight against a player who’s done it much more regularly.
Then finally, with just over 13 minutes remaining in his 33rd game of the season, a bounce finally went William Nylander’s way. Patrick Marleau gained the red line and launched a routine dump in around the boards but as Carey Price left his net to play the puck, it took a fortuitous bounce off of the zamboni door and landed right in front of the net on Nylander’s stick and Price was unable to recover before the (unfairly) maligned Leafs youngster was able to knot things up at 3.
It was a brand new game and the fun had just begun.
With Johnsson resisting his best efforts to engage him, Domi was forced to resort to different methods of turning momentum back in the Habs favour. Johnsson scooped up a loose puck in the Canadiens’ zone but Domi caught him with a beautiful, hard open ice hit before he was able to do anything with it. A couple of shifts later, Johnsson was called for a questionable hooking penalty and reacted in disbelief along with the Maple Leafs faithful as it looked like the Canadiens were going to have a chance to retake the lead.
The Leafs penalty kill was more than up to the task and the Habs never got set up in the offensive zone. The big kill seemed to help sustain the Leafs momentum heading into the final minutes of the third period.
During a commercial break, members of both teams were seen sharing some less than kind words at the benches. Morgan Rielly and Max Domi seemed to be getting especially heated as it became more and more clear that these teams did not care for one another.
The atmosphere in the arena had reached a fever pitch by the time the Leafs completed the comeback with only 1:50 remaining in the third period. Mitch Marner sent a weak shot towards the Canadiens’ goal and like a dog on a bone, Zach Hyman fought off Victor Mete in front to bang in the go ahead goal.
In a last ditch effort to recapture a game that seemed to have slipped from their grasp, Carey Price headed for the bench to give the Canadiens an extra attacker. With some strong defensive play just inside their own blue line, Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen teamed up to steal the puck and Kapanen burst up the ice towards the empty cage. It looked as though Kapanen could have put the game away on his own, but in what appeared to be a case of trying to rub salt in the wound, he held on to the puck before dishing it over to a somewhat battered Andreas Johnsson for the insurance marker. The Leafs weren’t done and after Ron Hainsey attempted a measure of revenge against Max Domi, just missing him with an open ice hit of his own, and some more dog-like work from Zach Hyman who was sent crashing into the end boards by Shea Weber, the officials awarded Hyman with the empty netter much to the dismay of the Canadiens’ bench.
The controversial call only seemed to fuel the hatred between the two benches, even in a game that was all but finished. Brendan Gallagher and John Tavares were among those who exchanged pleasantries. Max Domi and Shea Weber continued to offer their thoughts to the Leafs bench. Kasperi Kapanen also had plenty to say between winks and blowing kisses at his team’s greatest rival. He couldn’t help himself even after the game was over, brandishing his stick as a violin bow while the Canadiens headed down the tunnel and the Leafs saluted the home crowd, in an act I’m sure the Canadiens’ players won’t forget.
This was an important game for both teams as they head down the stretch, and a big win for a Leafs team that had been reeling a bit as of late. It was the kind of game that can galvanize a team and it was only fitting that a heart and soul player like Zach Hyman netted the game winning goal. The Leafs showed something in this game that many fans have believed was missing for much of the season and in doing so, helped to restore some of the hatred between the two historic rivals.
Win or lose, I think both Leafs and Canadiens fans alike will agree that these games are significantly better when the teams both have something to play for and there is some genuine dislike between them. This is how it’s meant to be.
The Leafs came out on top in this chapter but in the process, plenty of fuel was thrown on the fire that is the Maple Leafs and Canadiens rivalry. There is sure to be some fireworks when these teams next face off to close out the regular season, and if we’re all lucky, maybe even more after that.
follow @_nickrichard via Twitter