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Canadiens struggle to find edge against surprisingly stingy Maple Leafs

MONTREAL — It was just over a minute into the action when Josh Anderson put his head down, out-muscled John Tavares, took a step toward the inside of the ice and put a shot through Frederik Andersen to give the Montreal Canadiens a 1-0 lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night at the Bell Centre.

And it was in the 57th minute of play that Anderson’s teammate, Tomas Tatar, took a determined drive into Toronto’s zone, scrambled to keep the play alive, gained possession of the puck, passed it back to the point and then beat Morgan Rielly clean to the net to tap home his fourth goal of the season.

Everything that happened between those two plays — from Montreal’s side of it — was a mirage. Sure, the Canadiens built up a decisive edge in shots and expected goals at 5-on-5, they technically had the majority of the scoring chances and played the Leafs even on special teams, but as Canadiens forward Corey Perry put it, Andersen “saw most of the shots” in this 4-2 win for Toronto.

For accuracy’s sake, Andersen saw all of them — at 5-on-5, on the power play and on the penalty kill — and this was after the Canadiens spent two days practising their physical engagement following two lacklustre games against the Ottawa Senators last week.

The Canadiens just couldn’t find their way to the middle of the ice, they couldn’t find a way to Andersen’s crease and they just couldn’t get the edge they were looking for — no matter what both the ordinary and fancy stats said at the end of the game. And at 4-on-4 they were completely outclassed, with the Maple Leafs running a fire drill in their end for two goals.

On the first one, four of Montreal’s most reliable players — Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot — couldn’t execute a single play.

“Four times we had the puck and we gave it back to them in our end before they scored,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien about the shot from Travis Dermott that beat goaltender Carey Price clean. “For sure that knocked some of the wind out of our sails, and it gave them energy.”

The Leafs took it into the third period, and seconds after Justin Holl scored his first goal of the year 1:50 in on what Julien referred to as a “duplicate” sequence, Ilya Mikheyev went unmarked by Brett Kulak and scored his first.

“They were costly errors,” said Julien. “Toronto’s a team that makes you pay when you make those types of errors.”

Let’s talk about the 11-2-1, North Division-leading Maple Leafs for a second, because they were definitely opportunistic on this night, but they also had a different complexion about them than we’ve become accustomed to over the last few seasons.

They’re usually a high-flying, risk-it-for-goals group, one not afraid to sacrifice a little defence for offence, but on this night the Leafs took Montreal’s best punch early and remained patient instead of forcing the issue. They conceded the outside shots and clamped down the middle of the ice, they cleared rebounds in front of Andersen and bodies away from his crease and they let the game come to them instead of snatching it by the throat.

At one point, shortly after taking a two-goal lead, Toronto’s top line, featuring two of the most prolific point-producers of a generation — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — peeled out of their forecheck and joined the rest of their teammates in an 0-5 trap in the neutral zone.

They respected the Canadiens, who came into the game with an 8-2-2 record and as the NHL’s highest-scoring team. As Matthews put it afterwards, “That’s a good team over there.”

He and his teammates did everything they could to make the Canadiens look less than good. One of the main ways they did it was by not feeding them in transition (where Montreal excelled last time these two teams met — in Toronto on opening night), and they held their ground in all three zones.

“They played a solid defensive game,” said Perry. “You’ve got to give credit when they play well.”

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe definitely liked what he saw.

“Defensively today, we just didn’t give them much at all,” he said. “In fact, I had this as the lowest number of scoring chances we gave up in a game all season.”

It looked like the least amount of legitimate scoring chances the Canadiens generated in their 13 games to date, and it wasn’t solely because of how the Maple Leafs played them.

“I think we can be better at creating our turnovers and playing that game down low and getting to the front of the net and crashing the net,” said Perry. “Every (Canadiens) goal…you see where they were scored tonight, in that five-, 10-foot area in the crease. You have to go there.”

On the other side of the ice, Dermott’s shot beat Price from 35 feet out. And Holl’s was a missile from just inside the blue line. But Price’s view was unobstructed on both goals.

The 33-year-old made three stops on Matthews, three on Tavares, two on Marner and two on William Nylander. He made some really strong ones on a couple of tip plays, and he had no chance on Mikheyev’s and wasn’t even in the net for Zach Hyman’s goal with 1:04 remaining.

But the two Price couldn’t block from Dermott and Holl proved costly.

Still, the Canadiens couldn’t make up for it with the type of direct play we’ve seen them build their early season reputation on.

Joel Armia came back after seven games out with a concussion, and he played well. Perry, who had replaced Armia in his absence, shifted down to the fourth line and bumped Canadiens assistant captain Paul Byron out of the lineup.

It was understandable — Byron is without a goal so far — but perhaps they could’ve used the speedy winger in this one. He plays hard north-south hockey, and very much in the image of this Canadiens team when they’re executing the way they want to.

The Canadiens didn’t have it, the Maple Leafs did, and corrections are in order before the Edmonton Oilers take the ice at the Bell Centre on Thursday night.

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