TORONTO – “We’re playing for him.”
“The singular focus is moving on and trying to play long enough so he can come back and have an impact,” Justin Holl echoed Saturday morning.
Game 2 against the Montreal Canadiens — a decisive, assertive 5-1 come-from-behind victory — was the first step toward that gruelling mission.
From coach Sheldon Keefe’s curveball of starting the pugnacious Wayne Simmonds for puck drop alongside Auston Matthews’s top line to a power-play voodoo doll punctured by a rare point blast, the Maple Leafs jammed the game to their visitors in a refreshing change of pace from Game 1.
Things could’ve tumbled off the rails early.
Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi opened the scoring in Period 1. He banged home a Joel Armia rebound after some fierce Canadiens forechecking and some scrambly defence by Toronto’s newfangled, Tavares-free second unit of Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Foligno and William Nylander. Kotkaniemi, a healthy scratch in Game 1, busted a 24-game goal drought with the marker.
From there, however, the Maple Leafs took hold and never let up.
Jason Spezza struck back less than five minutes later after an excellent, prolonged cycle shift from the Leafs’ new-look third unit that allowed for an O-zone line change. Spezza hopped off bench, snagged a Zach Bogosian pass intended for Wayne Simmonds and, without hesitation, fired it clean past Carey Price’s short side.
In Period 2, Auston Matthews scored off the rush by slamming in a Justin Holl rebound off the pad of Price to give the Leafs their first lead of the series.
Three consecutive Leafs power plays tilted the ice toward Price, who succumbed to a point shot from Rasmus Sandin, now establishing himself on the top unit.
The rookie’s first playoff goal triggered an ill-advised goalie-interference challenge by Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme, and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared throughout Scotiabank Arena during a seemingly simple review. Ducharme was charged with a delay-of-game penalty and essentially hemmed in his own players for an additional two minutes.
Montreal’s third-period push came up short, and the Maple Leafs cruised to victory with a second power-play goal from Nylander. This marked the first time since March 3 in Edmonton that Toronto had scored twice in one game with the man-advantage.
Down three goals, Ducharme pulled Price with more than six minutes remaining on the clock.
Alexander Kerfoot deposited an empty-netter.
A best-of-five series begins anew at Bell Centre Monday night for the first half of a back-to-back.
“One of the best parts of the playoffs, frankly, is the opportunity to respond,” Keefe said. “The other team has an edge, and the urgency rises a little bit more. You get a chance to really push back.”
And all the motivation to do so, with Tavares no doubt watching from home.