The real marker for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens was Wednesday night at the Bell Centre.
The two clubs have been the class of the North Division so far. However, they have only played each other on opening night, when Toronto won in overtime.
This game was a better test, as opening night can be unusual with both teams working out rust. Bragging rights won’t last long, though, with the clubs facing each other 10 times this season. If you don’t like the result of this one, then just wait a short time for a rematch.
In game two between the two teams, it was the Maple Leafs who were superior, once again beating the Canadiens 4-2.
It’s a remarkable sight this season to watch Josh Anderson in a red, white and blue uniform. For a decade, the style that Anderson played was always wearing other colours. The Canadiens never had a player who could use speed and size to score on the rush; it seemed the last time Montreal had a player like him was Erik Cole.
The club missed a player with a skillset like this.
On the Habs’ first goal of the night, it was Anderson taking a Jonathan Drouin pass, then putting his head down to drive for the net. It was interesting to watch John Tavares try to check Anderson on the goal. Tavares was right there, right on Anderson. He put his stick in there as well as he could, but Anderson protected the puck, and fired it five-hole for the tally.
Any other player on the Canadiens doesn’t have the size and speed to get that shot away. That was nine goals on the season already for Anderson in only 13 games.
The best centre on the night, though none truly dominated, was Nick Suzuki. It was interesting to note that the Canadiens’ second goal was scored late when head coach Claude Julien mixed up his lines trying to ignite a rally. It was Suzuki who was on with Tomas Tatar who counted on a rebound.
For Tatar, it was his fourth goal of the season, and the hope is that it will help him to find his better self.
The Maple Leafs tied it on a 4-on-4 shift that the Canadiens had at least four chances to clear, but could not get a handle on the puck long enough to get it over the blue line.
Ben Chiarot was either unfortunate or exhausted, but he could not complete a clearing attempt, though it was right on his stick. Chiarot didn’t clear it twice when he had a chance. Shea Weber, Philip Danault and Brendan Gallagher also were caught out for 90 seconds. Danault was stripped of the puck. Gallagher was also stripped. Neither of the forwards chose to just get it out when they had a chance.
They both tried to carry it, and then they were dispossessed. It was just one of those shifts that the easy looked hard. Sometimes you are out there for so long that fatigue leads to physical and mental errors. It was unfortunate as it eventually led to Travis Dermott wiring a shot over the shoulder of Carey Price to make it 1-1.
The go-ahead goal for the Maple Leafs was also high against Price. It’s a 35-foot slap shot by Justin Holl. He blew it over the shoulder of Price as the Habs goalie went down at the same time as the shot went high. That was a 2-1 lead for Toronto. Price entered the game with an .899 save percentage which stood 40th in the league. It dropped again in this one where he had an .870.
Only 42 seconds later, this one was over. Alexander Romanov was beaten to the outside, and then Brett Kulak couldn’t tie up a stick in front of the net. The Maple Leafs full measure for their 3-1 lead. In fact, it was one of the few nights of the year that you could see the Habs were second best. Montreal was second on the puck in races and in puck battles they were beaten as well.
It was clear in this contest that Toronto is Montreal’s toughest competition in this division, and on this night the Maple Leafs showed they might be the class of the division.
Once again, for the third straight contest, the Canadiens did not have a single breakaway or 2-on-1. It is simply not going to be as easy as it felt like it could be when Montreal played Vancouver and Edmonton so often to start the season. When those two teams gifted the Canadiens 10 odd-man rushes per game, it must have felt as if goals were extremely easy to come by. The truth is unless you are playing a team wildly undisciplined as those two clubs were, goals are difficult.
Toronto showed Wednesday that Montreal goals against good teams are only going to come with hard work, net front presence, and a little bit of puck luck from time to time. They are not going to be on a silver platter.
The Montreal Canadiens affiliate Laval Rocket finally got its schedule for the American Hockey League season, but only for the first month of February.
If you like variety, then this year is not for you.
The Rocket, because of border restrictions for travel, will play only four teams this entire season: the Toronto Marlies, Belleville Senators, Manitoba Moose and Stockton Heat. The California club affiliate of the Calgary Flames, the Heat, will play in Calgary this season, so if there are call-ups due to injury, then there will not be a 14-day quarantine needed to get the players into the parent club’s line-up.
The Rocket will play all of their games at the Bell Centre, so the organization has to maintain all of the COVID-19 protocols at only one arena. With no fans allowed, it’s hardly necessary to play at your home facility this season in Laval. The club has been running training camp for two weeks, wondering when their first game will be.
It will be this Friday night.
In February, Laval will play four games against Belleville, followed by four games against the Moose, the affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets. The delay on the March schedule for now is the two teams from Ontario are still awaiting clearance to host games in their home province.
For now, those clubs will play on the road. Expectations are that this will not be a hurdle as COVID case counts drop heading into the spring, as they are expected to do.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.