With the likes of William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Mitch Marner, and Rinat Valiev not playing, the Baby Leafs were certainly giving their top prospect talent a bit of a rest. Although not being able to see these players was perhaps disappointing for some fans, it did give certain young prospects a chance to play a more prominent role and for observers to get a better sense of their abilities.
The Leafs wound up opening the scoring, but it wasn't due to the likes of Nikita Soshnikov or Dmytro Timashov - it was a very nice tip from Jack Rodewald off a Stephen Desrocher shot from the point on the power play.
In fact, on a later power play, it was the trio of Soshnikov, Gauthier, and Korostelev that were on the ice for the tying goal. Soshnikov committed an error in trying to make a play near the blue line, but instead tipped the puck to Jamal Watson, who went in alone on Leafs' goalie Justin Nichols to score a nice backhand goal.
All told, the first period was an evenly contested twenty minutes, with the Leafs maintaining a 14-11 lead in shots, although it should be noted that they had two power plays to Montréal's one. The period ending 1-1 was fitting.
Early in the second, it was Verhaeghe's line getting hemmed in its own end and Travis Dermott taking a penalty that gave the Habs the chance they needed to make it 2-1. 2015 pick Stephen Desrocher got beat to the front of the net on the ensuing penalty kill and Habs' prospect Tim Bozon found twine off a nice pass.
The Leafs scored two quick goals around the midway point of the game, one by Nikolas Brouillard (10:02 left) on the power play, and then another by Michael Joly (9:48 left) from Nikolai Sladnichenko and Aiden Jamieson. By this point, the Leafs were beginning to take over the game, running up the shot total to 26-16 with just over 6 minutes left in the second.
The lead wouldn't last long, however, as the Habs' Connor Crisp wristed one over the shoulder of Nichols.
The period ended at 3-3, with the shots 32-23 favouring the Leafs. The Leafs had a 19-second 5-on-3 advantage, but failed to produce a good chance. They carried a 1:35 power play into the third.
Up to this point, easily the team's most dangerous player was Soshnikov. His stick handling, passing, and skating stood out clearly, and he was effective on the half-wall on the power play. He lined up most often on the point and then shifted down the wall as needed, but the power play ran through him, with Gauthier being the big body in front of the net.
Gauthier has had an impressive two games, so far. He doesn't do anything flashy, but that includes bad things like make giveaways, run around trying to land big hits, or get into fights. Moreover, he causes havoc in front of the net, and is strong along the boards. Although many were dissatisfied with his draft position, his draft position is irrelevant now, and Leafs' fans should simply be happy that there is another centre iceman who has the potential to make the NHL, even if it is only in a limited capacity.
7:41 into the third period, Charles Hudon put the Habs ahead on a broken and wild play while the teams were at 4-on-4. Very shortly thereafter, Montréal went ahead by two, as Dalton Thrower's weak backhand made it through a screen to find the back of the net. With the score 5-3 Habs, the Leafs still held a 42-30 shot advantage.
It should be noted that at this point, Soshnikov's play in his own zone is nearly as dangerous as his play in the offensive zone. He coughed the puck up in dangerous places more than once, and has missed coverage as well. He definitely still has some learning to do.
Carter Verhaeghe took some time to find his legs and he mentioned after the game that he hadn't played a serious game in months, which would easily explain that. Although he had a quiet first half to the game, he wound up on a line with Dzierkals and Soshnikov and that trio hemmed the Habs in on several occasions. It will be interesting to see how Verhaeghe progesses this year with the Marlies.
Matt Finn took a penalty with 5:56 remaining in the game while the Leafs were on the power play. He went off for tripping - behind the Habs' net. In his previous game he looked strong among mostly younger competition, and he did not impress overly in this one.
On the Leafs' 50th shot of the game, with 3:12 remaining, Nikolas Brouillard brought the Leafs to within one, taking a wrist shot from the point that went through two sets of player screens. Dzierkals and Verhaeghe picked up the assists, but Soshnikov was in on the play as well, as the Leafs had been pressing for the better part of a minute before the goal.
With the net empty for Toronto, the Leafs put on Soshnikov, Timashov, Verhaeghe, Dzierkals, Dermott, and Joly. Unfortunately, the group couldn't muster much in the way of chances, and with 8.9 seconds left, the Habs iced the game with an empty net goal from Hudon, who has had a very strong showing over the last two games for Montréal.
As the clock wound down, the shots wound up being 51-36 in favour of Toronto, and so although it would have been nice to get the win, it's best to see that the team attacked well.