Someone forgot to tell the Leafs the rest of this season was meaningless. With one of the NHL’s hottest teams rolling into the ACC for a Saturday night rivalry game, Phil Kessel and the rest of the gang turned in a fantastic effort, and, at least for now, kept Montreal from jumping any higher in the standings. This game had the closest thing to a playoff feel that the Leafs and their fans will get this year and saw great action at both ends of the ice throughout the entire contest. Frank from The Rat Trick pointed out last week that CBC does a great job of their game lead-in montages, and this week was no exception.
Jaroslav Halak and the Habs were riding a season-high 6 game win streak coming into the game, boasting the best road powerplay in the league. Jonas Gustavsson continued to shine, stopping 25 shots and 2 more in the shootout to win his 5th straight game since the Olympic break. Johnny Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin both scored again in the shootout, while Kessel beat Halak, but rang his try off the crossbar. Halak, who has been red hot in net for Montreal after backstopping the Slovaks to a 4th place finish in Vancouver and virtually stolen the starting job from Carey Price, had allowed only one shootout goal this season.
In a game that the CBC announcers referred to as a track meet on numerous occasions, the Leafs were able to match the Canadiens’ speed with their own hustle and solid physical play. That first line of Tyler Bozak, Kulemin and Kessel continued to produce. Bozak scored a powerplay goal in the first, while Kessel scored his 28th of the year late in the 2nd, launching yet another rocket under the crossbar. Kulemin assisted on both goals. Bozak was also brilliant in the faceoff circle, winning 15 of 20 draws.
Montreal wouldn’t go quietly, as Brian Gionta scored two goals, including one on a late powerplay that forced overtime. His first came on a backhand with seconds remaining in the first period that Gustavsson should have saved with no problem. His second was a beautiful tip in of a Scott Gomez point shot that was aimed more at Gionta’s stick than the back of the net.
The most surprising part of tonight’s win was the Toronto penalty kill. All season, the PK has been one of the worst areas of play for the Leafs, but tonight, playing against one of the best PP units in the league, they managed to kill off 5 of 6 opportunities, including a double minor at the end of the 2nd and start of the 3rd where Montreal failed to even register a shot. A big part of that was the fact that they did a great job of disrupting the Habs as they came into the zone and preventing them from setting up, and then, when the powerplay did get set up, getting in the shooting lanes and preventing shots from getting through. Carl Gunnarsson led the team with 5 blocked shots on the night, and Toronto finished with 22 on the game.
Dion Phaneuf played a great game, despite drawing plenty of attention. The big guy got an assist on Bozak’s goal, and saved at least two potential goals in his own end. He led all skaters with over 28 minutes of ice time, and drew Montreal’s lone penalty of the game.
The Leafs now sit 10 points back of Boston, who holds the 8th and final playoff spot. More importantly, they are now within 4 points of the Lightning, Panthers, Islanders and Hurricanes, and have a very realistic chance at getting out of the Eastern Conference basement and denying Boston that number one draft pick. Toronto will host the Panthers on Tuesday night.
1. John Mitchell – game-winning shootout goal, 1 shot, 1 blocked shot
2. Brian Gionta – 2 goals, 6 shots
3. Phil Kessel – 1 goal (6th in his last 6 games), 5 shots, 9 shots attempted