MONTREAL — If Monday was a dress rehearsal for the season opener, the Maple Leafs are looking very sharp, while the Montreal Canadiens still need help in wardrobe.
A Toronto lineup nearing completion, with the fringe players trying to make decisions a little harder, gave the home side a taste of what could happen in nine days when their NHL schedule begins at the Bell Centre in a 5-1 win.
It’s no secret that Montreal’s to-do list is a long one after a 32nd-place finish last season, but the Leafs didn’t make it very easy Monday, sparing few horses.
They were predictably a handful for a foe still trying to fill significant holes. When the Canadiens did break through, projected starting goalie Matt Murray was there. His 27 saves included a couple on a third-period 5-on-3 before a later power-play goal.
For what it’s worth, the Leafs guaranteed themselves a winning record in pre-season (4-1 with two to go in Detroit this weekend), though surviving the Eastern Conference in real games against playoff contenders is going to be a seven-month grind.
Getting an early power-play goal — generated by Nick Robertson’s hustle on as stretch pass — only whetted the appetite of the fully charged first unit.
Relinquishing control just once, it was tic-tac-toe, Mitch Marner-Michael Bunting-William Nylander. Auston Matthews, in his second pre-season start, looked ready to roll next week as well, after missing time last October.
Morgan Rielly and Marner just missed on a 2-on-1 and were exiting when Zach Aston-Reese followed up and swipe at a puck that took a Leafs hop and beat Jake Allen. It was a nice pick-up point for Aston-Reese as decision time on his PTO contract draws near.
Robertson further solidified his bid for second line winger in the middle period, fishing a puck out of the corner to a wide open Nylander, who roofed a backhander. Alex Kerfoot added two insurance goals in the final five minutes, both assisted by Robertson.
Other Leafs looking to impress in this tune-up, with just two remaining after the club heads north to Gravenhurst, Ont., for a three-day getaway Tuesday, were Aston-Reese’s linemates Pontus Holmberg and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. The latter had a second period brain cramp trying to stickhandle through traffic that Murray alleviated.
After stopping 16 shots in his 40-minute debut versus the Habs last week, Murray had to be alert in the course of his first full game when some other newer Leafs got a little reckless. He was in excellent position on a couple of tips and stopped Sean Monahan’s backhander in the third in the former Flame’s Montreal debu.,
Adam Gaudette, slowed by a shoulder injury last week, was on the left side of centre Denis Malgin and Alex Steeves. But Robertson’s strong finish puts him on the left wing radar of the second line when Kerfoot moved over to replace the injured John Tavares.
Victor Mete did well as he hears the footsteps of the returning Rasmus Sandin and the soon to be recovered Jake Muzzin. On the Habs’ side, winger Juraj Slafkovsky needed to show something after a couple of ordinary exhibition games in which the first overall pick didn’t score or threaten much. That has not provided a good tail wind to his first week as an NHLer, but he had a couple of slot chances on Murray in the first period, one that went wide and was eventually cashed at the other end by Aston-Reese.
Montreal coach Martin St. Louis gave the 18-year-old Slafkovsky some lively linemates, such as Kirby Dach, and some power-play minutes. The Slovak was rocked by Aston-Reese when he turned late and was boarded, but recovered to help set up Jonathan Drouin’s late power-play goal.
“I think he’s right in the middle of (getting acclimatized),” St. Louis said in Monday morning. “This will be a real test for him as we progress here, you’re going to see deeper NHL lineups. I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like for him. But he’s been exposed to al lot and is trying to put his best foot forward.”