TORONTO – Hockey’s equivalent to the timeless Real Madrid-FC Barcelona feud played out on the biggest of stages: primetime Saturday night during the annual Hockey Day in Canada.
Electricity was in the air as the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs wrote another chapter in their historic rivalry at the Air Canada Centre. Unfortunately for the Habs, the Leafs never gave the visiting team a chance at the lead, and closed out a hard-fought game by a score of five to three.
“The first ten minutes we were pretty slow at getting going, but after that I thought we did a good job of forcing the play,” acknowledged captain Brian Gionta. The Randy Carlyle-coached Maple Leafs, one of the poorest puck-possession teams in the league coming into Saturday, tightened up their game considerably with their most hated rivals in town, using a mixture of brawn and brain to outshoot the Habs six to one in the early going. Cody Franson struck first on a rush four minutes into the first frame, while Brendan Gallagher equalized with a powerplay goal with two minutes left in the period.
In the second period, the Leafs took the initiative with two quick goals courtesy of Phil Kessel and Mason Raymond, the second of which was scored on the powerplay. Still, the Habs drove the play at even strength, and headed into the second intermission just a lone goal down when Gionta buried a loose puck to the left of goaltender Jonathan Bernier at 19:48 of the second. Once back on the ice, the visitors kept up the pressure, tying the game at three thanks to a David Desharnais tip-in. However, with a little over five minutes left in regulation, the Leafs moved ahead for good when James van Riemsdyk redirected the puck behind Carey Price. With the net empty, the Habs pressed hard for the equalizer, but were unable to string together a game-tying play. Joffrey Lupul was awarded an empty-net goal with seconds left in the game when he was hauled down while breaking toward the Montreal net with the puck on his stick.
“I thought we put in a good effort. A couple of mistakes led to their goals but we were able to tie it up. We weren’t able to hang on, so it was heartbreaking for sure,” offered Gionta, who played over 21 minutes in all situations on Saturday. “When we play at the top of our game, we can play with any team in the league, but when we’re not at our best, we’re a very average team. We need to play more complete games for sixty minutes, night in, night out.”
Brendan Gallagher, who also contributed a goal in the losing cause, talked about the revved-up, playoff-style atmosphere in the building, which forshadowed another possible future chapter of the oldest rivalry in NHL hockey.
“Last year, the teams almost met in the playoffs. We came close and you could see people in both cities looking forward to it. It’s pretty crazy. I’m sure it’ll happen soon enough,” Gallagher mused. “With Hockey Day in Canada, there were lots of emotions involved. Obviously losing is disappointing. We just have to go back, look at the game film, take the good and work on the bad. In general, we need to get the puck behind the defense and use our speed to wear them down, that’s the game we need to play in order to have success.”
Rookie Nathan Beaulieu drew in for Raphael Diaz, who was sick with the flu, and played 13:36 of inspired hockey. Jumping into the rush at will, the youngster moved the puck well and even partnered with P.K. Subban on a few shifts when the coaching staff was looking for a tying goal.
“As the game went on, I felt that I was getting better, more confident and calmer with the puck. That’s a good sign on a personal note, but on a team level, it stinks not getting the two points,” related the rookie defenseman, called up from Hamilton on Friday. His coach agreed with his assessment during the post-game scrum.
“Beaulieu created some good things. I liked the way he skated and handled the puck,” said coach Michel Therrien. “He’s a young player on his way up. He did not panic with the puck.”
“We did not play a bad game,” added Therrien, whose team out-shot Toronto 33 to 29. “There were some individual mistakes which cost us the game, but there was also a good level of effort and enthusiasm from our team. We didn’t give up when trailing, and generally played good hockey.”
Now, the Habs will have a few days to regroup, before flying to Pittsburgh to challenge the high-flying Penguins on Wednesday.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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