Wayne Simmonds had his first fight. Auston Matthews didn’t score a goal. Neither did Tyler Toffoli. Opening night seems like such a long time ago. The Maple Leafs rallied from two goals down and beat the Canadiens in overtime in the first encounter of the season on Jan. 13.
The forever rivals met again in Montreal on Wednesday night. At any other time, the Bell Centre would have been pulsating. Not so during these days of COVID-19. You could hear pucks boomerang around the boards, sticks chop at the ice.
They came in as the top two teams among the 31 in the NHL, and first and second in the all-Canadian North Division. Toronto’s 10-2-1 start was its fourth-best in history. The Canadiens have been flying on offence and stingy on defence. Both are creating a buzz around the league, if not in any of the rinks.
Toronto won again in a 4-2 squeaker that was still interesting until Zach Hyman scored an empty-net goal with 61 seconds remaining. The Maple Leafs fell behind but tied it in the second and pretty much put the game away with two quick goals to start the third. Justin Holl had the go-ahead goal on a blistering one timer that beat Carey Price. Ilya Mikheyev poked another one past the Canadiens netminder 42 seconds later. It was also his first of the season, and officially recorded as the game-winner.
The loss dropped the Canadiens to 8-3-2 but they have plenty of time to catch up. The teams play each other three times in a period of 11 days, the next meeting on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.
Josh Anderson, who scored twice on opening night, put Montreal ahead on its first shot of the game. He converted a turnover that he caused himself by whipping a shot through Frederik Andersen’s wickets. Anderson, obtained in a trade with Columbus for Max Domi in the offseason, has nine goals already. Max Who has two so far for the Blue Jackets.
Tomas Tatar scored the Canadiens’ other, with 3:20 remaining to cut the margin to 3-2.
Before the puck drop, a tribute was paid to Ralph Backstrom, a six-time Stanley Cup winner with Montreal who died Sunday at 83.
It was Toronto’s second game without Simmonds. The pepperpot is out for six weeks with a broken wrist. Travis Dermott returned on defence after missing two games with a leg injury. As this was the theme for the evening, Dermott pulled Toronto even with a sharp wrist shot that was also his first goal. It baffled Price so much that he reviewed it on a tablet during a break.
Mikheyev got a shot off for Toronto 1 minute 10 seconds into the game. It was nearly 13 minutes later before the Maple Leafs got a second. They failed to score on back-to-back power plays late in the first, Montreal failed to register a shot on one earlier. The Canadiens held an advantage in shots, 9-6, after 20 minutes.
The pace increased in the second period. But neither team was able to score. A scuffle broke out late when Corey Perry took a whack at a puck in Andersen’s glove during a goal-mouth scrum. There is nothing terribly unusual about that.
Dermott scored the equalizer on a sharp wrist shot from 35 feet out on Price. It was Dermott’s first goal and first point in 10 games.
\After 40 minutes, Toronto had been outshot 20-12. Then the Maple Leafs lowered the boom.
Andersen made 33 saves to improve his career record against the Canadiens to 9-3-2. His victories in the net this season are the most in the NHL.
“He is making critical saves and timely saves when we need them,” Holl said. “He is allowing us to find our game, and that’s really big for us.”
Perhaps he biggest news is that Matthews failed to score. He leads the NHL with 11 goals and had at least one in eight successive games. Mitch Marner also had an eight-game points streak come to a close.
Jake Muzzin had three assists for the Maple Leafs on a big night for their defencemen. The goals by Dermott and Holl were only the team’s their fourth and fifth from the blueline this season. Mikheyev had not scored since he suffered a severed artery in a game against the New Jersey Devils in December of 2019.
“Every player wants to score,” Mikheyev said afterward. He had plenty of chances before this. “Sometimes you just keep working to help the team with everything you do.”
Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto coach, was happy for him.
“He has worked extremely hard,” Keefe said. “It is nice to see him get rewarded, for sure”
Toronto has won four in a row and hasn’t lost in regulation time since Jan. 20. Montreal has points in all but three outings in 2021.
The Leafs sit first overall, while the Canadiens are five points back with a game in hand. Their long-standing rivalry is heating up again.
“As a kid you loved watching these games,” Anderson, the Montreal winger, said before the game. He grew up just west of Toronto in Burlington. “To be experiencing it now, it’s very exciting. I know a lot of people will be watching.”
The Maple Leafs won on a night when their top players were held in check. They won because four secondary players scored, and Andersen played well after being beaten on that first one.
“That’s a very strong Montreal team,” John Tavares, the Toronto captain, said. He was credited with two assists. “It wasn’t our best two periods, but we got better as went along.”
Holl, who has five goals in 95 NHL games, was thrilled that he and two teammates scored for the first time this season.
“That is really good for us,” he said. “We rely so heavily on our star players, that if we can score on a night when they are held in check, that’s great. That is the sign of a good team.”