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Good Start to What Should be a Great Season for the Habs

October 9, 2014, 9:25 AM ET [2404 Comments]
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After a nervy first period, the Montreal Canadiens ironed out the kinks and dominated large portions of the second and third to avoid a five-game skid on opening day against the Leafs. Tomas Plekanec's bank shot off Leafs rookie Stuart Percy, in the final minute of the third, responded to Toronto's flukey tying goal off Lars Eller less than two minutes earlier, capping a two-goal performance for one of Montreal's newly minted assistant captains.

The Leafs took an early 2-1 lead off defensive lapses by Brendan Gallagher and Andrei Markov, respectively, and after an impressive period, found themselves rocked onto their heels in the second. Alexei Emelin found a streaking Plekanec for the equalizer, with Plekanec slyly out-waiting Jonathan Bernier before sliding the puck into the cage. Emelin finished the night with two assists.

Newcomer P.A. Parenteau notched an assist on Max Pacioretty's goal; a quick outlet to Montreal's best goalscorer, who made an impressive rush up the ice and scored on his very first shot of the season. Parenteau added another helper in the third period, as David Desharnais did some impressive work to set P.K. Subban up for his first ever goal against the Leafs in Toronto (shocking, I know).

Carey Price made 24 saves, several of them of the highlight variety, and was left to fend for himself on the ones that got by him.

With that, Montreal gets set for another home opener, this time in Washington. Head coach Michel Therrien has opted to start Dustin Tokarski.

1) The game within the game: A big question for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season is whether or not Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly can find the wherewithal to be nearly as prolific in their own zone as they figure to be in the offensive zone. With the hometown advantage Randy Carlyle had, he got caught far too many times with Reilly and Gardiner having to defend Pacioretty's line, and it was a matchup that Carlyle got devoured on.

Dion Phaneuf was victimized by Pacioretty early on in the game, but after that, he and Stephane Robidas were doing a decent job of containing Montreal's top line. But things came unglued with Gardiner and Reilly on the ice, and after a few dominant shifts, Montreal's top line exposed the weakness with a brilliant goal by Subban.

2) Can't help but wonder what this game would've looked like had Rene Bourque, Lars Eller and Jiri Sekac started the way they finished. They were out of sync for most of the night (not all that surprising with Eller missing most of training camp), and they missed the mark on completing the rhythm the Habs' other lines had established.

The Leafs had a tumultuous time with Desharnais' line and Plekanec's line rolling one after the other, and Montreal's fourth line played a rather dominant game, with Malholtra winning 69% of his faceoffs--many of them in the defensive zone.

3) Tom Gilbert was far from perfect. He had some blemishes, including a four-minute high sticking penalty that bled from the end of the second to the beginning of the third, but he also made bunch of heady plays, like the breakout pass to Parenteau that inevitably led to Montreal's third goal.

4) Speaking of Parenteau, saw a lot of vitriol launched his way by some senseless fans on Twitter. The guy played a very solid game, at both ends of the ice. He pursued the puck vigorously, he made two simple plays that turned into assists, and he was one of Montreal's most engaged players in the game.

Nothing to scoff at...

When it comes to Parenteau, Sekac, Gilbert, the fans need to give these players a bit of time to integrate themselves. All of them were playing their first games as Canadiens, all of them on the road, all of them under immense pressure to justify their utilization.

Sekac looked like a guy playing his first NHL game, and when he finally settled down by the third period, he made some impressive plays. I expect to see a much more comfortable player tonight, if he's in the lineup.

5) Tokarski's in, and you wonder if Therrien has any other changes in mind. I don't think he wants to tamper with anyone's confidence, but with back-to-back games to start the season, it would be understandable if he wanted to turn to his depth, with Travis Moen, Michael Bournival and Jarred Tinordi sitting as spectators last night.

I'd imagine if Bournival drew in, it would be at Sekac's expense, not that I believe Therrien's going in this direction.

And it would be pretty hard to pull Nathan Beaulieu for Tinordi's insertion, but would Therrien consider parking Weaver in his favor?

6) Okay, when it got to the second and the third, that looked like the old Leafs, overpowered in the advanced metrics department, hemmed in their own end for consecutive shifts. It's going to take a fair amount of time to undo some of the habits this team has had over the last couple of years.

Here's the difference with this year's team. They're faster. With Gardiner and Reilly playing as a pair, with Brandon Kozun and Stuart Percy making the roster, speed is much more apparent. How Carlyle uses it is another thing entirely.

While they had some shoddy defensive shifts, Kozun-Kadri-Lupul represented Toronto's best chance in this game, and they fell a solid six minutes under Kessel's line with Bozak and Van Riemsdyk. Toronto's top end was stymied at virtually every turn, with all three players falling on the negative side of the Corsi line. Kessel finished with two shots on net, and only one of them was a scoring chance.

David Clarkson, Leo Komarov and Mike Santorelli all played pretty well. Were they deserving of the same ice-allotment as Lupul, Kadri and Kozun?

Montreal's fourth line got caught on a couple of icings, and Carlyle countered with Toronto's fourth line in each situation.

This coach is sitting on the hottest seat in the NHL right now, and he burned himself last night.

7) If Glenn Healy didn't guarantee waning interest in the Sportsnet broadcast, Doug Maclean sealed the deal with a disgraceful rant in the first intermission, laden with "I love the guy" disclaimers before annihilating P.K. Subban ahead of any significant game action.

Maclean went on about Subban being overpaid by roughly two million dollars on a deal the general manager and coach are displeased about, and then proceeded to spit on about Subban rubbing his teammates the wrong way. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and on an intermission panel, these guys are being paid to give them, but this was an unsolicited attack.

What happened to breaking down tape?

8) Every Hab finished above 50% in the dot last night. Manny Malhotra might not be conditioned to play as many hard minutes as he played last night, but his presence--as many anticipated--has redefined Plekanec's role.

When the Canadiens had the depth to rely on Plekanec to be more offensive--back in 2007--they got really good production out of him. For the first time since that year, Plekanec finds himself with gifted offensive players in Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, and it seems clear we're going to witness his offensive revival. From 40-point guy, back to 60-70-point guy.

It was a real nervous start for Gallagher and Galchenyuk, but as they got more comfortable, they provided the support to Montreal's top line, and the wave pounded the Maple Leafs out of this game.

9) Four even strength goals. The powerplay was a mess in the first period, but looked a lot better on their second opportunity. Let's see what they offer in Washington, where the special teams battle is sure to be a big part of the story.

10) Balance, depth and speed; that's what these Canadiens are about. Beaulieu logged the team-low 10:25, and Sekac clocked in at 12:13--lowest among the forwards. The Habs took advantage of their balance, their depth prevailed in the key moments, and they ramped up the speed to account for that up and down first period.

Good start to what should be a great season.
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