They all mentioned the importance of taking time and space away from the Toronto Maple Leafs. They all mentioned how it was, in the words of both Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher “about us,” and there was even the odd jibe about how the game isn’t won in the weight room – a reference to comments by Joffrey Lupul suggesting the Leafs could push around the Montreal Canadiens.
But perhaps the most resonant message out of the Canadiens all-encompassing 4-1 win over the Leafs on Saturday night were a few simple words repeated in both French and English by head coach Michel Therrien. “We’re ready for the playoffs,” Therrien said matter-of-factly. “We’re ready.”
The Canadiens and Leafs will now sit back and await the outcome of Sunday night’s game between the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins to determine their opponents in the Eastern Conference semi-final. The Leafs will finish fifth; the Canadiens can still finish either second or fourth and if the latter holds true they will face the Leafs.
Lupul’s comments in Saturday’s Toronto Sun weren’t exactly inflammatory – the Leafs had to make things tough on “them and their small players,” he said - but there was Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner a few minutes before making a fool of himself, holding up the front page of the Sun sports section with the headline ‘We Want You’ over a picture of the Canadiens players raising their sticks after a win.
The Canadiens were all over the Leafs, out-shooting them 28-17 (10 of the Leafs shots came in the third period) and limiting the Leafs to two shots in seven power-play opportunities, one of which accounted for the Leafs only goal at 15:36 of the first period.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle started his game with enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on the ice to little effect; the Canadiens’ Brandon Prust simply skated away from McLaren. In fact, the biggest hit of the first period might have been thrown by Jarred Tinordi, who levelled Mikhail Grabovski in the Leafs end leading to Eller’s goal at 18:01 that tied the score.
The last time these teams met at the Air Canada Centre the Leafs won 5-1 in a game in which Carey Price was benched early in the first period. It was an oddly unsatisfying game for Carlyle, who was not pleased with some of the habits his team showed in winning. There was no mystery as to why Carlyle was perplexed after this one, and perhaps most worrisome was the lack of discipline they showed late in the game. This time, it was the large contingent of Canadiens fans that started the ‘Ole, ole, ole’ chant with five minutes left, not Leafs fans who did it sarcastically as was the case the last time the teams met.
There was nothing to read between the lines with Therrien. His team simply shut down the Leafs, rendering every line combination ineffective, and later he felt moved to comment about the end of a satisfactory week of practice and games. Tinordi had four of the Canadiens 39 hits; Eller had six and was a dominant presence from first to last shift. Price was given the night off as a bit of a re-set going into the playoffs. Letting Peter Budaj start might end up being a genius move given how poorly Price played the last time at the ACC and considering how much work he had to do to get out of the funk.
“We wanted to finish the right way,” said Therrien, whose team eliminated the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night with a 4-2 win. “Those were two playoff games we just played. Winnipeg needed to win, and tonight was important for both teams, with all the attention on the game.”
Canadiens captain Brian Gionta was asked whether he’d have any bon mots for youngsters such as Gallagher or Alex Galchenyuk going into the playoffs. “There’s not much you can really say,” he said. “They have to go out and experience it themselves. I know from the first game forward they will feel the difference in urgency and pace.”
As the Leafs quietly filed off the ice following Saturday’s game, the Canadiens gathered at the blue-line to congratulate Budaj and P.K. Subban wind-milled his arms in the direction of a group of fans dressed in Canadiens jerseys who were crowding around the ice-level seats. On the whole it was subdued, however. The playoffs had begun, even if they hadn’t.