TORONTO - Home ice, check. Strong finish, check. Crushing your rivals in the final game of the season, check. Bring on the playoffs.
For those wondering if the Habs were ready to head into the second season, their last two games should answer the questions of any detractors. Going up against a Leafs squad that had created problems for them all season long, the Canadiens put together one of their best performances of the year to put an exclamation mark on a campaign no one would have predicted four months ago.
Playing top-notch hockey at both ends of the ice and fueled by standout nights from Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher, the Habs cruised to a 4-1 win in hostile territory, looking the whole way like the group that dominated the Eastern Conference for the better part of the season.
|Habs down Maple Leafs 4-1|
“The last two games, we got back to playing our style and feeling confident in ourselves. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing next at this point – it’s going to be fun,” said Brendan Gallagher, who furthered his case for rookie of the year status with a two-point effort and a plus-3 evening against the Leafs. “We knew that it was going to be an emotional game, so our goal tonight was to keep those emotions intact and not play outside of ourselves. We wanted to go in there and not care about what they were doing or saying, so that’s what we did and it paid off.”
With a lot of talk circulating around the Leafs' physical advantage over the Canadiens leading up to the tilt, Gallagher could only grin following the match when asked if he felt his team had stacked up well against the opposition.
“We feel we match up physically fine against any team we play against,” said the 20-year-old winger. “We’re made up of a bunch of guys that go out there and bang, a bunch of quick guys and we feel like we have a good mix. It’s never been an issue for us. Now it’s just a matter of watching the game tomorrow and seeing who we’ll play.”
A dominant force throughout 60 minutes at the Air Canada Centre, Lars Eller not only stole the show with a three-point night that started with the Canadiens' first goal of the evening on an excellent feed from Gallagher, but also led the game physically with six hits. Logging a goal and three assists since being united with Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk in the third period of Thursday’s game against Winnipeg, Eller and his linemates couldn’t have picked a better time to catch fire.“It can’t hurt for us to be playing like we are right now with the playoffs right around the corner. When you find this kind of confidence as a team, it’s a lot easier to leave the past behind you,” said Eller, who ranks fourth on the team with 30 points and also ranks third with 80 hits on the year. “We’re feeling good about our game at the moment and I think we really rediscovered ourselves in these last few games. If we keep playing like this, we’re going to be successful.”
After struggling to defend against the Leafs’ attack for three of the four matches against them leading into Saturday night, the Habs were lights-out in their final contest of the season, allowing only one shot on goal in the entire second period and no shots at all for a span of 17:26 split between the second and third frames.
“I always believe you’ve got to stay humble. There’s no point in trash talking in the media because it might come back to haunt you,” added Eller following the game. “The game’s not played on the weight-scale, it’s not a number on a piece of paper and it’s not won in the gym either – it’s won on the ice. Whoever wants it more, gets it – today we wanted it more and we got it.”
Now all that’s left for the Habs to do is wait and see whether they’ll face the Maple Leafs or the Senators in the first round of the playoffs – the answer of which remains dependent on the outcome of Boston’s Sunday tilt against Ottawa.
Whoever their opponent is in the end, one thing’s for certain – they’ll be facing a confident Canadiens squad ready to give their best when the puck drops on the NHL’s second season.
Justin Fragapane is a writer for canadiens.com. ALSO SEE: