The opportunity was ripe for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win their first playoff series in 17 years.
They’ll have to wait a bit longer.
Despite giving up the first three goals of the game, the Toronto Maple Leafs forced overtime in Game 5 against the Montreal Canadiens. But a costly turnover by Leafs forward Alex Galchenyuk led to a 2-on-0 chance for Montreal early in the extra session.
Nick Suzuki took a feed from Cole Caufield and beat Jack Campbell at 0:59 of overtime as the Canadiens defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3 and forced a Game 6 that will take place on Saturday against Montreal.
Despite nearly pulling off the comeback, the focal point was put squarely on the first period.
“We didn’t come out with nearly as much or jump to start with and they were much more desperate than us,” Leafs forward Auston Matthews said.
The Maple Leafs lead the best-of-seven series 3-2.
The Canadiens came out flying from the start of the game. They crashed Toronto’s net hard, something they had difficulty executing through the first four games of the series.
They were rewarded early when Joel Armia scored the first of his two goals from the slot that beat Campbell at 5:13 of the opening period.
Montreal’s Corey Perry helped set up the goal when he forced Toronto defenseman Rasmus Sandin to make a quick play along the boards. Sandin’s attempt went right to Armia’s stick.
Armia scored his second goal by jamming at a loose puck in front of Campbell at 8:18.
Montreal outshot Toronto 14-9 after 20 minutes and had an 8-4 edge in slot shots on goal, per Sportlogiq.
Sandin, who returned the lineup after sitting out as a healthy scratch in Game 4, had a rough opening frame that extended into the second period. Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi won a puck battle behind Toronto’s net and freed himself from Sandin before he beat Campbell for 3-0 lead at 4:52.
Sandin was -2 for the evening. He was benched for all but two shifts following that play. It was most evident when he was not used on the team’s lone power-play opportunity in the third period.
The defenseman is typically used to quarterback the team’s first power-play unit.
“When you’re playing better as a team and mistakes happen, they don’t seem to hurt you,” Keefe said. “When you’re not playing well and make mistakes and you open the door for the opposition and those mistakes are going to cost you.”
The Leafs began chipping away at Montreal’s lead shortly after Kotkaniemi’s goal.
Mitch Marner outwaited Montreal’s Carey Price on a chance near the net. With the goaltender out of position, Marner forced the puck toward the net and Zach Hyman jammed it loose to cut Montreal’s lead to 3-1.
In the third period, Toronto attacked Montreal’s net relentlessly. Jake Muzzin fired a shot from the point just as their power play had expired and beat Price at 6:52 to cut Canadiens lead to 3-2.
Muzzin scored his second of the game to tie it 3-3 at 11:54.
It was Muzzin’s first multi-goal game since he scored twice with the Leafs against the Philadelphia Flyers in a 7-6 victory on Mar. 15, 2019.
The playoffs are about moments and despite their poor first period, the Leafs managed to find themselves with a chance to pull off a comeback and advance to the second round of the playoffs where the Winnipeg Jets have been resting after taking care of business with a four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.
But it vanished at 59 seconds into overtime.
Leafs defenseman Zach Bogosian pinched in deep in Montreal’s zone. Alex Galchenuk fired a pass to the point that failed to connect with Jake Muzzin. That led Caufield to initiate a 2-0 with Suzuki. The two passed to each other a couple of times before Suzuki scored the game-winner.
“I’ve just got to make the save on that,” said Campbell who stopped 26 of 30 shots on goal. “I was a little aggressive and I’ll learn from that.”
This wasn’t Campbell’s best night of the playoffs and the goaltender has a history of being hard on himself after losses. But the 2-on-0 goal isn’t really his fault.
“It wasn’t his best (game) obviously,” Keefe said of Campbell. “He’s earned the opportunity and the trust that he will bounce back.”
As expected, the Leafs weren’t in a great mood to celebrate any individual performances. Muzzin was direct in his replies to questions about the game.
“It’s good,” Muzzin said when asked about the team’s mood. “We’ll be alright.”
There were a couple of scoring chances that stood out for the Leafs before their early deficit piled up.
In the first period, Wayne Simmonds’ shot beat Price but hit the crossbar just moments before Montreal opened the scoring. With the Canadiens leading 1-0, Marner and Hyman both had high-danger scoring chances that could have tied the game before Armia made it 2-0.
Toronto had a 7-2 edge in high-danger scoring chances after the first period, per Natural Stat Trick.
When searching for strengths Montreal had over Toronto going into the series, the only one most pundits came back to was goaltending. Price has had his moments in this series and he helped the Canadiens with a 30-save performance.
“He’s doing his job out there and he’s been playing really well in this series,” Hyman said of Price. “We have to make his life difficult.”
The one silver lining from any of this will be that the Leafs will get to play in front of fans, even if they are the visiting team. The province of Quebec is relaxing COVID-19 protocols in the province and 2,500 fans will be in attendance.
“It’ll be great no matter what,” Muzzin said. “It’ll be nice to hear something.”