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Habs rout of Panthers sets up crucial clash in Columbus

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The Montreal Canadiens are hitting their stride when it matters the most.

With five games remaining this season, the Canadiens are still holding on to a playoff position following a decisive 6-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.

Montreal has won four of its past five games (4-0-1).

“It’s huge right now,” said Andrew Shaw, who had two assists against Florida. “It just shows we’re a character team. We’re working hard, we’re competing. We’re going to earn our own spot in the playoffs and not rely on someone winning or losing.”

Montreal is in a tight three-team playoff race with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Canadiens (41-28-8) are in the second wild-card spot, one point behind Carolina and two points ahead of Columbus. Both the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes have a game in hand on the Habs.

WATCH | Highlights from Montreal’s win:

Montreal beats Florida 6-1, Tomas Tatar records 2 goals and 1 assist. 2:02

Montreal’s next opponent is Columbus on Thursday.

“The last few weeks now, we’ve known the importance of every game,” said defenceman Brett Kulak, who scored the winner. “We’ve got a little momentum rolling here and it gives you a boost of energy when you can come out and score early and everyone’s feeling good like that.

“We’ve really settled into our identities as a team. Everyone knows their role and everyone’s playing their role really well. That just builds confidence.”

Tomas Tatar and Carey Price led the way against the visiting Panthers on Tuesday. Tatar scored twice and added an assist while Price stopped 33-of-34 shots in his ninth consecutive start.

Florida (33-32-12) was officially eliminated from playoff contention.

Tatar got the ball rolling at 6:58 of the first period when he beat James Reimer with a shot off the post and in on a feed from Shaw behind the net.

The home team went up 2-0 through Kulak’s one-timer at 12:39 for the defenceman’s fifth goal of the season.

Tatar added another for Montreal less than two minutes later when he shovelled a loose puck in the crease past Reimer, who mishandled Shea Weber’s initial shot from the point.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) makes the save against Florida Panthers centre Colton Sceviour. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Reimer, who had not played in exactly one month, was pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots. Sam Montembeault stopped 15-of-18 shots in relief.

The Canadiens took a 4-0 lead when Artturi Lehkonen’s shot deflected slightly off Aleksander Barkov’s stick at 2:52 of the second.

Left alone in the crease, Phillip Danault scored Montreal’s fifth of the game when he squeezed a puck between Montembeault’s pads from the doorstep at 12:40.

The Panthers have conceded 20 goals on their current three-game losing skid.

“Five of their six goals, we just let them have as much time and as much room as they wanted in front of our net,” said Florida’s Vincent Trochek. “It’s just laziness, not doing your job. It’s just unacceptable, leaving our goalies out to dry. To give up that many goals in the last three games is an absolute embarrassment.”

Habs

Florida Panthers defenceman MacKenzie Weegar (52) knocks out Montreal Canadiens left wing Paul Byron (41). (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The only player to beat Price was Frank Vatrano, who scored his 23rd goal of the season at 1:35 of the third period, on the power play.

Max Domi made it 6-1 with a wristshot from the face-off dot to the left of Montembeault with 8:12 left in the game.

Paul Byron left the game in the first period and did not return after being dropped to the ice in a fight with MacKenzie Weegar. Byron took an uppercut to the jaw before wobbling off the ice with the help of a trainer.

The fight was retaliation for Byron hitting and concussing Weegar on Jan. 15. Weegar missed four games with the injury while Byron was suspended three games.

“It wasn’t my intent to injure him,” said Weegar. “I simply asked him if he wanted to own up to the hit. I respect him for that and I hope he’s okay. It’s a hockey thing. He didn’t have to fight me if he didn’t want to. I wasn’t going to jump him.”

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Mike Babcock out coached the Bruins

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At the beginning of the Maple Leafs 4-3 OT win over the Boston Bruins, I thought it was odd that Mike Babcock had switched Mitch Marner and William Nylander. I worried about how the Leafs were going to keep up with Boston’s depth and not lose out because of it. If only one line was able to produce, and it went up against the Bergeron line, the team wasn’t going to succeed.

Babcock’s solution was much more complicated than rolling four lines and it was brilliant.

Babcock and his coaching staff get an A+ for their effort and creativity last night because they were able to have their best matchup line (Matthews and Marner), while also maximizing Nylander’s time with the top line. Alex Kerfoot was a man on a mission and showed us that he’s much better at driving play than we thought he was. That goal he scored was fully deserved.

Jason Spezza wasn’t used much, but Frederik Gauthier and his mates killed it last night, they were super impressive. They beat the Bergeron line when they needed to, gave the Leafs positive and energetic minutes against the depth, and allowed Babcock to be super creative with his top-eight forwards.

That careful management and line matching honestly gave the Leafs the win. Without John Tavares — and for half the game Andreas Johnsson — they would not have beaten the Bruins in a normal game.

I’m less worried about the playoffs on Sunday than I was on Saturday.

Oh, and Mike Babcock (and all of you yelling at me) were right about Dmytro Timashov. I was wrong. He’s a fun little bugger.

The Branches

Here is the recap from the game I just talked about. It’s from Seldo so proceed with caution.

During the intermission, Nic Petan was brought up by Elliotte Friedman. The Leafs might be looking for a trade partner here. Gosh, I hope no one has any opinions about this in the comments.

From our friend-enemies at MLHS, the difference between reasonable and ridiculous takes and why you’re at fault for it.

For those who like to “hate watch” things, have fun with O-Dog’s ridiculous takes on… John Tavares?

Update on Andreas Johnsson: nothing broken, but he won’t practice tomorrow. Leafs play the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Bruins again on Monday and Tuesday this week.

From the Marlies, Kasimir Kaskisuo recorded his first shutout of the season in a 2-0 win over the Cleveland Monsters. Darren Archibald got his first as a Marlie and Egor Korshkov scored his fifth goal in five games. The Marlies are 5-0-0 to start the season and remain *perfect* on the penalty kill to start the season.

Captain Morgan?

Just kidding. Freddy Gauthier for Captain.

Branches Around the League

The Tampa Bay Lightning got trampled by three minutes of the Colorado Avalanche, in case you still want to say the Leafs are doomed.

Billie-Jean King is a QUEEN!

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Toronto FC ends Wayne Rooney’s MLS career

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The pendulum swung from shock to jubilation in record time at BMO Field on Saturday night, as Toronto FC blasted four extra-time goals and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 5-1 victory over Wayne Rooney and D.C. United.

The Reds will take on Eastern Conference top seed New York City FC at Citi Field on Wednesday.

The Reds had been clinging to a 1-0 lead for more than hour when some sloppy defending on a corner in the third minute of injury time allowed D.C.’s Lucas Rodriguez to tap in the game-tying goal.

A stunned silence fell over the announced crowd of 25,331 fans as D.C. United players mobbed the goal scorer. TFC had walked a tightrope over the course of the game, and fans held their breath with 30 minutes added to the clock, fearing the momentum would work in D.C.’s favour.

But the worry was short-lived. Winger Richie Laryea opened Toronto’s extra-time account after three minutes, on the end of a neat give-and-go started by captain Michael Bradley and touched on by Nick DeLeon. Midfielder Jonathan Osorio made it a 4-1 game with goals in the 95th and 103rd minutes. DeLeon added the piece de resistance in the 105th, a curler from the top of the box into the upper corner of D.C. ’keeper Bill Hamid’s net.

Celebrations that would have been unfathomable at the final whistle were quickly underway.

Coach Greg Vanney called the home side’s overtime response “incredible.” A change to a 3-5-2 formation, a shape the Reds used regularly in the 2016 MLS playoffs, helped them find their mental toughness for the final half-hour.

“I just reshaped it and said: ‘Let’s be aggressive. Let’s not fall back,’” he said. “I wanted us to play the ball forward and to just attack.”

If the overall performance helped TFC shake off the cobwebs, it can be considered a rousing success. Vanney said the Reds took time to find their rhythm and sharpness after a two-week break between the regular season and playoffs, during which several key players left for international duty.

But if the first 90 minutes are a sign of what’s to come, the Reds will have a hard time repeating their 2017 MLS Cup championship finish.

TFC was perhaps unsurprisingly without striker Jozy Altidore, who suffered a quad strain in the final game of the regular season and hasn’t trained in earnest since. The hamstring strain that sidelined veteran Omar Gonzalez, however, was an unexpected setback. Defender Chris Mavinga and midfielder Marky Delgado were both hobbling by game’s end, but Vanney was hopeful neither injury was serious.

The coach was optimistic that Altidore and Gonzalez would see minutes in Wednesday’s semifinal. How soon, and how well, they recover will have a big impact on their chances of a deep playoff run.

On Saturday, Toronto’s relied on its depth to get through the first round. Marky Delgado scored the opener, side-footing home the rebound after Hamid made a meal of a shot by Alejandro Pozuelo. D.C. didn’t manage a shot on target until the 60th minute, but when the visitors got going they were able to create a few clear chances — including two close-range shots by Rooney, in what would be his final Major League Soccer game, that Reds goalkeeper Quentin Westberg denied with one-handed saves. There was also an Ola Kamara breakaway that Reds ’keeper Quentin Westberg stopped with his legs.

“He was positionally excellent, right in the right places, reactions fantastic,” Vanney said of Westberg. “I was a little more irritated that we left Rooney in a spot to finish two on us. He’s the one guy we really wanted to know where he was at all times and he got away from us, but (Westberg) made a few saves that were critical on the night, really. There’s no two ways to say it.”

Vanney says the team won’t be firing on all cylinders until Gonzalez is again anchoring the back line and Altidore is back to make his presence felt up front.

“There’s still a best version of us that we’re still striving for,” the coach said, “and that requires everybody to be healthy and ready to go.”

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Rielly scores winner, Andersen excellent as Leafs beat Bruins in overtime

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All things considered, the Toronto Maple Leafs would prefer if Frederik Andersen had stolen a game or two from the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Like, say, in either of the past two Game 7s against the Bruins.

For now, the Leafs will continue to have to settle for Andersen’s regular-season dominance against the Bruins.

Andersen again handled the Bruins in a 4-3 Toronto overtime victory at Scotiabank Arena, making 43 saves in an entertaining affair before a crowd of 19,394.

“He was huge for us,” Auston Matthews said. “He was solid in there, made some big saves, kept us in it at times we weren’t playing well, especially in the second period. He had a heck of a game.”

Andersen, who entered the game with a career .927 save percentage against the Bruins in 13 games, improved to 12-2-0 versus Boston.

Morgan Rielly got the winner at 3:54 of the extra period, his second goal of the game and of the season, when a shot by Mitch Marner deflected off him and past Bruins goalie Jaroslav Halak.

The 46 shots represented the most the Leafs have allowed in a game this season, eclipsing the previous high of 42 against Montreal on Oct. 5. Toronto had 29 shots on Halak.

Matthews called it “a statement game” and Rielly carried a similar tune.

“Yeah, it’s big,” Rielly said. “A team within the division, not having (captain) John (Tavares). Kind of a point in our year where we want to get going and I think we answered the bell. Not as clean as we wanted, but we got it done.”

The Leafs, in their first game without Tavares as he nurses a broken finger, lost forward Andreas Johnsson in the second period.

Johnsson blocked a Brandon Carlo shot and hobbled to the bench, with the Leafs announcing at the beginning of the third period that Johnsson would not return because of a leg injury.

Coach Mike Babcock said Johnsson should “be fine” and that X-rays were negative.

Babcock threw a curve at the Bruins at the opening faceoff, putting Marner on Matthews’ right side with Johnsson on the left. That move dropped William Nylander to a line with Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot.

While Matthews and Marner liked the chemistry they had with each other, don’t count on them becoming a long-term duo.

“Not really,” Babcock said when he was asked whether he is tempted to keep the two together further into the season.

“I’m tempted to have the best lineup we can and if that’s them together, then I’d do that. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t predict that. You get to write about it after, I have to decide during. It’s not as easy to second-guess during. You’ve got to make those decisions in advance. Sometimes it goes good and you feel great. Sometimes it goes terrible and you wish you wouldn’t have done it.”

Sorry, Leafs Nation.

GAME ON

Rielly’s winner originally was credited to Marner, and while both Marner and Matthews figured the shot hit Rielly before going in, Rielly would not admit to as much … No surprise, Rielly gave the game basketball to Andersen … David Pastrnak scored his ninth goal in seven games, tying the game with a one-timer off a pass from Brad Marchand at 15:34 of the third period … Kerfoot scored the go-ahead goal at 2:37 of the third, swatting the puck behind Halak … Danton Heinen tied the game for the Bruins early in the third period as Martin Marincin served a hooking minor … Rielly, with his first goal after scoring a career-high 20 last season, opened the scoring at 5:55 of the first. Rielly’s shot from the point came about after some fine spade work by Johnsson, and went in the net after bouncing off a Bruin … Andersen made point-blank saves on Patrice Bergeron and Marchand during a Bruins power play in the second period, and was thanking the hockey gods when Jake DeBrusk fanned on what appeared to be an easy tap-in … Dmytro Timashov won’t have to fictionalize when he describes his first NHL goal to his grandkids one day. It was a beauty all right, coming at 15:44 of the first when he fired a shot into the top corner of the net over Halak’s glove, giving Toronto a 2-0 lead. “It’s a dream come true,” Timashov said. “I didn’t think it would come this soon because I don’t score a lot of goals.” … Among Andersen’s harder stops of the 18 shots he faced in the first period was a pad save on a low shot from Torey Krug, which found its way to the net through a screen. Not long after, DeBrusk scored on a pass from Coyle … Marchand was booed throughout and further endeared himself to Leafs fans when he slammed Cody Ceci into the end boards with a clean check … We were fine with Marincin taking a roughing penalty when he tackled David Backes, who had run into Andersen. That negated a Leafs power play, as Backes was going for goalie interference, but it was better than Marincin standing by and doing nothing. Said Andersen, who was bumped twice during the game: “It’s a tough battle for goalies … It’s tough to police yourself. Maybe something (for the NHL) to look at.” … Dropping the puck for the ceremonial faceoff was tennis star Bianca Andreescu, still riding the high of winning the U.S. Open in September.

LEARNING CURVES

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is one of the more insightful people in the game, so his thoughts on the Leafs following the morning skate weren’t overly surprising.

There’s no secret that the state of the Leafs’ defence corp remains a work in progress, and Cassidy diplomatically acknowledged as much.

“Defensively, we are always looking for where we can expose teams, no matter who we play,” Cassidy said. “Probably (with the Leafs), it’s too early to tell. I think it’s unfair (to make judgements barely two weeks into the regular season). When you get new D partners like (the Leafs have), that’s one area where chemistry is really important, I think more than up front. Let’s judge it a little bit more down the road.”

There have been bumps, to say the least, with the pairing of Rielly and Ceci; Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie also are getting up to par with each other.

We asked Ceci how he would grade his own play through the Leafs’ first eight games, and the 25-year-old answered in general terms.

“Right now, like a lot of us, we’re just trying to get a little consistency in our games and so far it has been good,” Ceci said. “It’s a lot of fun to play with these players and have a chance to play with Rielly. At the same time, we have to figure out how to get wins more consistently and to do it every single night.”

HUTCH HOMEWORK

Paying close attention from the end of the Leafs bench was backup goalie Michael Hutchinson, who is in line to start on Tuesday in Boston against the Bruins.

Hutchinson won’t have to rely solely on video review in his preparation for that game. Fresh mental notes from Saturday night should serve him well.

“It definitely helps,” Hutchinson said. “You go over a ton of video, so you already have a good scouting report going in. When you’re sitting on the bench and seeing the game live, you get a better feel for it. It should be a benefit, knowing we are going to be playing them soon again.”

Specifically?

“A lot of it is in power-play setup, which guys are in which spots for them, and different tendencies they might have,” Hutchinson said. “You always look for things we watch in our video scout and to see them in person reiterates for myself these are plays they like to run and tendencies they have.

“At the same time, when you get into the game on Tuesday, you don’t even really think about it. You just go out there and play, but it’s always in the back of your mind. Things happen so fast that every little bit of knowledge that you have comes in handy.”

While Hutchinson is fairly sure that Babcock won’t stray from the plan — which is to use the backup in the second game of back-to-back sets, no matter the opponents in either game — Hutchinson tries not to look too far ahead and study the schedule to see when his starts will come.

“It took me two years to get back in the NHL, so I’m just taking it one day at a time, enjoying every single day, whether it’s a practice day or a game day,” Hutchinson said.

LOOSE LEAFS

We’ve all seen the manner in which Nylander has been a better player to start this season — he’s a lot more engaged, and in turn, his vast skill is put to better use — than he was at any point last year after signing a contract on Dec. 1. Babcock’s view? “I think Willy would tell you that he’s feeling way better than he was at this time last year,” Babcock said. “I think he was on some beach in Sweden or something last year at this time so just being at the rink is a real step in the right direction.” A beach in October in Sweden. That’s a chilly thought … Following the morning skate, Babcock said, yes, he had updates on injured Zach Hyman (knee) and Travis Dermott (shoulder), told reporters he ate breakfast with Hyman earlier in the morning, said recovery doesn’t happen as fast as players want and wound up not giving an actual update on either player.

FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED

Matthews’ minutes
In the Maple Leafs’ first game without John Tavares, Auston Matthews played 23 minutes 12 seconds — the second-most in his career. For the most part, Matthews had a tough challenge with the Patrice Bergeron line.

No chances
The Leafs didn’t have a power play, noted by coach Mike Babcock. “How many did we get?” Babcock said. The answer was none. Babcock, tongue in cheek: “I didn’t know that.” The Bruins had three.

Big hitters
The Leafs were credited with 36 hits, including nine by Dmytro Timashov. “What I like about him is he is nasty,” Babcock said. “He hits everything that moves and is heavy on the puck.”

Goat the best
The Leafs continued to get a strong performance from Frederik Gauthier, who played just under 10 minutes. Gauthier took 12 faceoffs, winning seven.

Rielly rising
Not only did Morgan Rielly score a pair of goals, he led Toronto with eight shot attempts and blocked four shots, tying with Tyson Barrie for most among Leafs.

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