The Montreal Canadiens promised to deliver a physical series and the Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to push back against it where it mattered most … On the scoresheet.
Auston Matthews scored a goal and added two assists to match a career playoff-high three points and the Leafs scored two power-play goals for the first since Mar. 3 as they defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 to even up their first-round series at 1-1.
Matthews’ helpers came on power play. He picked up the secondary assist on Rasmus Sandin’s first NHL playoff goal that made it 3-1 Toronto in the second period. He had the primary assist on William Nylander’s goal that gave Toronto a 4-1 lead that effectively put the game out of reach.
“This was a bit of a do-or-die game for us tonight, so I think everybody stepped up,” Matthews said.
Toronto’s power play had been a pain point for most of the year. Through the first two weeks of the regular season, the Leafs had been scoring at a rate of 43.3 percent, but specialty began to struggle into February and that number fell to 20 percent by season’s end.
They finished 16th in the NHL.
The Canadiens gave the Maple Leafs many chances to improve in that regard on Saturday.
Montreal took six consecutive minor penalties beginning in the second period and into the third.
“Montreal has made it very clear that they want to be physical,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I think the term was they wanted to make it a war.
“If you’re going to do that, you’re at the risk of getting penalties called against you.”
Rasmus Sandin scored his first-ever NHL playoff goal on the power play. He skated further into the zone to connect on a pass from Mitch Marner before beating Price at 13:20 of the second period.
There was a lengthy wait as Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme challenged the goal for goaltender interference.
“I don’t know what the challenge was to be honest, so I was hoping for them to call it a good goal,” Sandin said.
The Canadiens explained that Joe Thornton made contact with goaltender Carey Price’s stick. The call stood and the Leafs got an additional power-play as Montreal was penalized for the unsuccessful attempt.
For Sandin, the game presented a bounce-back effort after he was on the ice for both of Montreal’s goals on Thursday, including a turnover while on the power play for the game-winner.
“I just watched my clips from Game 1 and I tried to close that game quick,” Sandin said. “I mean, it’s so tight that with games that you can’t really look back to what happened last game.”
Sandin had to be patient all season. He started as the team’s eighth defenseman and got into one game before he was sent down to the Toronto Marlies on Feb. 15. In that game, he sustained a foot fracture that kept him out for two months. He returned to the Leafs on Apr. 20 and he was added to the team’s second power-play unit before moving eventually moving up to the top spot to replace defenseman Morgan Rielly.
Despite the mistakes in Game 1, Sandin appeared confident in his play for Game 2.
“He’s so poised, so deceptive and extremely skilled” Matthews said of Sandin. “For how young he is it doesn’t seem like these big moments shake him at all.”
Matthews’ scored the game-winning goal in the second period when he picked up Justin Holl’s rebound that gave Toronto the first of five unanswered goals. It also ended up as the game-winner.
Matthews wore an ‘A’ as an alternate captain on Saturday with team captain John Tavares out of the lineup. The Maple Leafs announced earlier in the day that Tavares will miss a minimum of two weeks with a knee injury he sustained in addition to a concussion suffered during the team’s 2-1 loss to the Canadiens on Thursday.
“(The win) means a lot, not just for our guys in the locker room, but for John,” Matthews said.
Jason Spezza scored his first playoff goal with the Leafs. He joined the club last season and resigned on a one-year, $700,000 contract in October.
Jack Campbell picked up his first-career playoff victory with a 22-save performance.
Alex Kerfoot scored an empty-netter that iced the game for Toronto.
The series shifts to Montreal for Games 3 and 4. They will take place on back-to-back nights beginning Monday.