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This article was published 29/5/2021 (237 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MONTREAL—Game 7 it is.
The Maple Leafs will battle history and their own personal demons now that the Montreal Canadiens have won not just once but twice in overtime to tie their North Division semifinal at three games each.
The Winnipeg Jets wait in the wings to face the winner of a Monday battle that seemed so unlikely only a few days ago.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi jumped on a Travis Dermott giveaway — these things seem contagious — at 15:15 of overtime as the Canadiens proved in both Games 5 and 6 to be the more opportunistic of the two teams.
Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie — unlikely heroes, both — forced the overtime after Montreal had gotten a pair of power-play goals early in the third period from Corey Perry and Tyler Toffoli. But Jesperi Kotkaniemi took advantage the Dermott miscue to end an overtime in which the Leafs outshot Montreal 13-2.
“I think it’s obviously frustrating losing the game, but battling back the way we did ... It’s a game of inches out there in overtime to obviously end the game and we couldn’t get it done,” said Leafs forward Auston Matthews. “We’re going to move on and we’ve got another game here. We’re going back home and we’ve got to be ready.”
The Leafs will go into Game 7 with injuries mounting. Jake Muzzin left the game in the second period. Coach Sheldon Keefe offered no update on the defenceman’s status.
The Leafs haven’t done so well in Game 7s, and face the prospect of playing the deciding game without their captain, John Tavares, and their top defenceman, Muzzin, who appeared to be favouring his right groin when he left the game. Muzzin missed last year’s decisive Game 5 against Columbus in the qualifying round. The decision went Columbus’s way. The Leafs also lost Game 7s to Boston, in both 2018 and 2019.
So Monday’s task comes with the weight of some history for the Leafs, while the Canadiens are essentially playing with house money. They had been given up for dead after dropping Games 3 and 4 at home and heading to Toronto trailing the series three games to one.
“I’m not worried about that,” said Keefe. “I don’t think pressure is the issue here. It’s just a matter of playing a hockey game where we’ve got to elevate our play.”
As Nick Foligno put it: “We have a great opportunity in front of us. It’s time for the words to stop, for the clichés to stop. It’s Game 7. It’s time to put it all on the line. I have no doubt, going to battle with these guys, that we’ll do that.”
Heat is on
But the heat now is on the Leafs’ best players — Matthews and Mitch Marner — who have combined for one goal in the series.
“We’re playing too much in our zone,” Marner said. “When we got in their zone, we’re doing a decent job of moving the puck around and getting to the net. But too much energy wasted in our own zone. We’ve got to make sure we’re better than that. Nothing we can do now. Just got to make sure we’re ready for Game 7 and look forward to it.”
Said Matthews: “I think we’ve done a lot of really good things. Maybe it hasn’t showed up on the scoresheet, but whether it was gaining momentum for our team when we’ve lost it or just creating chances and creating havoc. Obviously, we’d like to see those pucks go in, but we’re just going to keep shooting and keep fighting, and keep working to help the team win.”
The Canadiens were clearly the better team for the first 50 minutes, bolstered by loud and flag-waving fans, the first fans allowed into a hockey rink since the pandemic hit 14 months ago.
“Montreal, in both games, had a real hard push at the start and we can’t get through that,” said Keefe. “Can’t break out, can’t get momentum and life to get through it. I thought obviously the crowd and the push at the start was significant for them. Obviously, we’ve got to be a whole lot better there.”
The crowd is hardly the reason the Leafs lost. They failed at their second chance in two games to win the series by turning in a comically bad performance — their worst of the season — for two and a half periods.
The Leafs had promised to play as desperate a version of the game as Montreal, but came up woefully short from the opening puck drop to the final frame.
The Canadiens scored 1:17 apart to take a 2-0 lead by the midway mark of the third period. William Nylander was called for interfering on Price and Perry scored Montreal’s first power-play goal of the series. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe challenged for goaltender interference and lost, giving the Leafs a delay-of-game penalty when the call on the ice was confirmed.
“We felt it was worthy of a challenge,” said Keefe. “There’s some precedent there. The piece that we were looking at was just at the end with Toffoli standing in the crease and we thought there’s some precedent there where the goalie’s trying to get back into his crease and can’t and goals come back.
“We weren’t really sure how that one would go but thought, given what was happening in the game with the significance of the goal, thought in the moment that it was worthy of a challenge and having confidence in our penalty kill if we needed to get it done like it has all series for us. Obviously, we end up being 5-on-3 so it doesn’t go the way we want it to.”
What was Marner thinking?
Yes, the 5-on-3. Just 19 seconds into the second power play, Marner got his own delay-of-game penalty for clearing the puck over the glass, leading to Toffoli’s goal.
“It went over the glass,” said Marner. “Dumb play. I tried to get it down ice for Zach Hyman to chase on it. It wasn’t my best.”
Whatever ailed Rasmus Sandin and Alex Galchenyuk, whose giveaways led to Montreal’s victory in Game 5, spread to the rest of the Leafs in Game 6.
When it came to controlling the puck, they simply couldn’t. They would overskate it. Or fail to corral a pass. Or simply find another way to give it up. A team that is one of the best in the NHL at possessing the puck for long stretches and wearing an opponent down had the tables turned on them.
The Canadiens were faster, more aggressive and playing with a confidence drawn from Price in net and their boisterous fans, the first inside a rink since the pandemic struck 14 months ago.
The Leafs took over in overtime, but couldn’t score on Price. And it was a another mistake, off Dermott’s stick, that sent the series to Game 7.
Foligno returned to the Leafs lineup, centring the second line with Nylander and Galchenyuk. It’s a job he took for Game 2, taking over for Tavares. But Foligno missed Games 3, 4 and 5 with an undisclosed injury.
“We knew when we brought him in that he would be a difference-maker for us in all regards in terms of the leadership and the energy, the competitiveness that he has,” said Keefe. “He can play anywhere in the lineup. He’s an important player for us for sure.”
Dermott replaced Sandin, whose giveaways on Thursday led to two Montreal goals. “I thought Dermott had quite a good game for us the other night,” said Keefe. “Rasmus is coming off of a tough night and I just felt going with Dermott would be the right move. It gives Rasmus a little bit more time to settle in, with the combination of both, learning from the previous game and gaining a little extra experience as he’s making his way through his first playoff series in the NHL.
Galchenyuk made the mistake that led to Montreal’s overtime winner in Game 5. Keefe had a chat with him, too. “You want to be sure to be able to have a conversation with him and just reaffirm the fact that he’s done a lot of really good things, not just in this series but all season long,” said Keefe. “Those should be the things that he’s thinking about and that should give him the confidence to come back here today, and recover from a mistake.
“It’s a difficult one to overcome. It would hit any player hard. But again, it’s really important you don’t let one play define you as a player. As we look at the big picture, he’s done a lot of really good things. In fact he was a major difference-maker for us in Game 4. He’s got lots of reasons to just push past that one.”
Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran