With Montreal digging its way out of a 3-1 hole, the Habs struck gold on Monday, as they punched their ticket to round two of the postseason.
In the sport’s most storied rivalry, never mind a series 42 years in the making, it was the Canadiens who held the torch high, eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs downtown at Scotiabank Arena.
The last these two teams met in the playoffs was back in 1979 when Toronto called Maple Leaf Gardens home. As for the last Game 7, it was the other way around, as the Habs fell short to the Leafs. That, of course, was in 1964, which saw Dave Keon score a hat trick, leading Toronto to a 3-1 win at the famous Montreal Forum.
While one could say that COVID-19 helped set the stage like no other with both teams in hot water, Toronto received some good news early Monday, that fans would be in the stands, much like Game 6 in Montreal.
However, given Ontario’s guidelines, the capacity was capped at 550 spectators. What was special about these spectators? All were frontline workers who were double-vaccinated and selected via a lottery system. It marked the first time in 447 days that the Bay Street arena was filling seats to a hockey game.
With many thanks to MLSE, all who were chosen to attend took it in free of charge, from walking in to food and beverage services. Each invitee was also gifted a free Leafs sweater. For many, this was a welcoming sight, including for the players, who missed their No. 1 supporters.
“It’s great, it’s been a long time coming, a lot of vaccinations (have) been rolling out,” said veteran forward Joe Thornton. “(I) can’t wait for more people to start coming in this building.”
While the stakes couldn’t be any higher, there was an added incentive for the series decider. “Obviously, it’ll be nice to have that presence in the building tonight,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said prior to puck drop. “More so than that, it’s another sign of progress for our country and for our province and city, specifically.”
With their backs up against a wall, it was up to both teams to perform to their best. Seeing a goal duel on each end, the crowd was treated to a showdown for the first 20 minutes. As has been the case all series long, it was backstop Jack Campbell squaring off against Carey Price.
As both kept action limited offensively, this meant an uphill battle for both cities respectively. Luckily for Montreal, their saving grace was Brendan Gallagher, who broke open the scoring. He did so following a turnover from Mitch Marner at the offensive blue-line three minutes into the second. With plenty of space headed for the net, he went five-hole on Campbell for his first of the series.
It was also the veteran’s first since April 1st after missing six weeks while out with a broken thumb. “I knew the chances were there (this series), said the Edmonton native. “I finally hit a spot. I just kept telling myself game after game you’re going to have to score a big one. You have to get one for these guys, they’re doing great. I’m going to have to find a way to chip in here at some point and get a big one. So it’s nice to get the win. I’m happy it came soon enough.”
For Montreal, this proved to be a common theme, being three straight games in which the Canadiens strike first. While for Gallagher, it was a sigh of relief, it only helped set a tone and create momentum for the visitors.
Looking to further capitalize on that energy, Montreal earned a power play, and from there, never looked back. Playing hero near the end of the period, it was Corey Perry lighting the lamp to double the lead. Tipping the shot in front from Nick Suzuki, it was the winger’s second goal of the playoffs.
This also saw a break in pattern after going 0 for 15 to start the series on the man advantage. While that only gained the Habs some more life, it saw the Leafs come alive in the faint minutes of the second. However, with credit to the excellence of Carey Price, he stopped a near game-tying goal from Zach Hyman and a two-on-one laser ripped from Auston Matthews.
“It’s a different level of confidence when you’ve got Pricey back there,” Brendan Gallagher said of his raw skill and athleticism. “This guy is the best I’ve ever seen, It’s pretty nice to play in front of him.”
According to Rachel Doerrie, Price is the first player in NHL history to win a postseason series with a salary of more than $10 million AAV. With that, CapFriendly notes that no other player being paid $10 million has won a playoff series prior to Monday night.
As is par for the course, facing a tighter Leafs team to begin the third, Price declined a Zach Hyman redirect on the side of the post with Toronto handed an early power play. Continuously pressing to come alive, Price made quick work of Hyman, who was looking to finish off a behind-the-back pass from Matthews.
Failing to break the veteran backstop, the B.C. native couldn’t be fooled on another Toronto man advantage. In a bid to keep the shutout intact, Price, with under nine minutes left, came up with two key saves to limit Matthews and Nylander. He would finish with 31 saves and a .968 save percentage.
On the losing end of the battle, the Leafs still put up a fight in the dying minutes. Down to 2:38 and a vacated net on the far side of the ice, Tyler Toffoli rifled the puck from the defensive zone, all but putting it away with the empty netter.
Seemingly the closing statement, Toronto didn’t let them walk easy, adding one last highlight in a goal from William Nylander. Scoring just one minute later, it was their first glimpse of hope, however, too little, too late. While the only point marked for Toronto, it was a team-high, being his fifth of the series.
Making every last minute count, Brendan Gallagher had high praise for the resilient opposition. “First off, that’s a hell of a hockey team on the other side,” he said. “They competed hard. They really pushed us to the brink and we had to find out a lot about ourselves. So we got nothing but respect for that side. It was a chippy series, but there’s a lot of respect for those guys over there and for our team to enjoy this win.”
Sending the Leafs packing as the game siren sounded, it became their second Game 7 loss on home ice in franchise history. The last they were eliminated on home soil, it was 1993 against the Great One himself and the Los Angeles Kings.
While certainly not a favourable number, the Leafs fell 11-2 all-time when leading a playoff series 3-1. On the other side, Montreal is 11-0 when Carey Price is in net and the team scores more than three goals. “It’s fun, it’s why we play the game, these are the moments that you remember the most,” said the veteran backstop.
That said, if there’s anything Toronto can hang their hats on with pride, it’s the fact that they finished a unique a regular season up 18 points on the Habs after 56 games.
As Montreal moves on to face Winnipeg, head coach Dominique Ducharme becomes the fastest bench boss to a win a Stanley Cup Playoffs series since Jacques Lemaire’s first season with the Habs in 1983-84.
“We won a series,” said the Lachine, QC native speaking postgame with the media. “We’re happy, we’re happy about that. But we want more. After tonight, you need to turn the page. Take all the good that made us have success and bring that to the next one. So it’s not a time to celebrate for a few days. We enjoy it tonight and we’ll be preparing tomorrow.”