The much anticipated 2021 season got underway last night in Toronto as the Montreal Canadiens were paying the Maple Leafs a visit. There were a lot of question marks coming into this season with the Habs and all were answered by the time the final game buzzer sounded. Who would the newcomers fare? How would the team’s young centres do against the Matthews and Tavares in this league? What about this new Canadiens’ defense? The Canadiens lost officially lost the game 5-4 in overtime, but gained in a lot of areas.
Claude Julien‘s team surrendered two leads in this game before Morgan Rielly scored at 3:24 of the 3 on 3 overtime period. They led 3-1 when the Leafs tied the game at three, then took a 4-3 lead early in the third period.
In the first two periods, the Habs carried most of the play as the Leafs’ defense simply couldn’t keep up with the Montreal’s speed. They took tripping and holding penalties to make up for their lack of speed on the back end. And if not for suspicious officiating, they would have come out of Toronto with a rather easy two points.
But the game switched when referees Kendrick Nicholson and Brad Meier turned the game around with non-calls against Toronto and suspicious calls against Montreal, for what seems to be either favouritism or feeling bad for the home team. First, Phillip Danault received a high stick in the face, almost knocking his helmet off, right in front of the referee who was looking at the play, with no call. Then late in the second period, Jimmy Vesey rubbed shoulders with Josh Anderson but the Canadiens’ player received a two-minutes boarding penalty… for being the strongest of the two. To make matters worse, the stripped ones earned a blue jersey by calling a borderline holding penalty against Nick Suzuki and during that penalty kill, Shea Weber sent the puck in the stands to give Toronto a lengthy 5 on 3 advantage. Early in the third period, Artturi Lehkonen was clearly tripped at the Leafs’ blueline with no call.
Officials aside, the Canadiens deserved the win. Leafs coaches know it as do the Habs. There were plenty of positives to take from this first game for the Canadiens:
Josh Anderson: The big man, coming back from shoulder surgery, quickly made fans forget about Max Domi. He created several scoring chances and the Leafs’ defense got beat regularly by the speed of Anderson. He scored his first two goals in a Canadiens’ uniform, adding seven shots and three hits in 17:28 of ice time.
Nick Suzuki: He did a great job centring the first line and was a force at both ends of the ice. Solid plays offensively, sound in his own zone, he played nose to nose with the Leafs’ top-two centres. Slick Nick had a goal, six shots on goal and at one point, he made Rielly look like a novice with an incredible move between the legs.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi: He picked up where he left off the last playoffs. Faster, stronger, KK was more confident than ever with the puck. He made some nice passes and finished the night with three hits and two blocked shots.
Alexander Romanov: Well if some people around the league had their doubts about this guy, they’re all dissipated by now. The Tsar finished the night with 21:30 of ice time, third behind Shea Weber and Jeff Petry, a couple of seconds more than Ben Chiarot. He made several brilliant passed including when he thread the needle to send Tomas Tatar on a breakaway. On top of his assist, he had three shots on goal and four blocked shots. Not bad for a first NHL game…
Jonathan Drouin: Jo made several solid plays. He was involved in all three zones and was a threat in the Leafs’ zone. Unfortunately for him, he made a great back check and as he was shooting the puck behind the Canadiens’ net, the referee got in the way and the puck ended in front of the net, costing a goal. But that wasn’t Drouin’s fault. He did finished the night with three points in 17:36 of ice time.
The powerplay: The Canadiens went 2 for 3 on the powerplay and were threatening on all three. Further, both units look good and had some good opportunities.
Physicality: The Canadiens out-hit the Leafs 32 to 14 in the game and in several occasions, the Leafs’ were getting rid of the puck much sooner than they would have liked, to avoid getting hit. Lehkonen led the team with four, followed by Anderson, Kotkaniemi, Suzuki and Chiarot with three hits a piece.
Room for improvement
While overall, the Habs were solid, there are a few areas needing improvement.
Joel Edmundson: More than one fan on Twitter last night were putting down the giant defenseman. What these folks conveniently forgot is how Chiarot looked in his first 7-8 games with the Canadiens. It takes time for newcomers to adapt to their teammates and new system. It’s even more true for defensemen. Still, he finished the night with an assist, led the team with five blocked shots and was plus -1 at the end of the night. He played 17:51 minutes.
The penalty kill: The Canadiens penalty kill allowed two goals in four opportunities against the Leafs. They were too passive for my liking, particularly the forwards. At 5 on 5, the team is great at applying pressure but they are giving their opponents too much time to think and make sound plays, in my humble opinion.
Gap control: I found that last night, the defense was backing up too far in their zone, too soon, not giving the forwards a chance to apply back pressure. The Canadiens’ defenseman, while not slow, aren’t speedsters either, particularly without Victor Mete in the line-up and it seems like they were afraid of getting beat on the outside. They need to tighten things up a bit.
Faceoffs: Aside from Danault, the Canadiens were owned in the faceoffs’ circle and the Leafs had most of their scoring chances on the powerplay or with faceoffs in the offensive zone. Here’s what the team’s centres did last night:
The Habs will be flying to Edmonton where they will face the Oilers on Saturday and Monday. They will then continue to the west coast to face the Vancouver Canucks for a three-games series. The Canucks beat the Oilers last night 5-3. You can find the next games every day on the main page of this blog in the right-side column, under “Upcoming Events”. Go Habs Go!