Ugly first period dooms Canadiens in 5-2 loss to Maple Leafs

The loss hurt Montreal's hopes of moving into 3rd place in the North Division and avoiding a first-round playoff matchup against Toronto.

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If the Canadiens-Maple Leafs game Thursday night was a playoff preview, Montreal  doesn’t have much to look forward to in the post-season.

Toronto needed only 16 seconds to open the scoring, took a 4-0 lead in the first period and cruised to a 5-2 win over Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena.

The loss dealt a blow to Montreal’s hopes of moving into third place in the all-Canadian North Division and avoiding a first-round matchup against the division-leading Leafs. Montreal remains two points behind third-place Winnipeg and the Jets hold a game in hand.

The Canadiens had reason to feel good about their chances against Toronto when they opened the week by rallying from two deficits to defeat the Leafs 3-2 in overtime at the Bell Centre Monday.

But the Canadiens were in too deep a hole Thursday as the Leafs ran their record against Montreal to 6-2-1 with the final game in the season series set for Saturday in Toronto.

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The Canadiens had a built-in excuse for the lacklustre performance. They were playing the second half of a back-to-back set after losing 5-1 Wednesday in Ottawa, while the Leafs have been resting and plotting their revenge since Monday.

Montreal’s players may have gone into this game hoping to atone for a flat performance in Ottawa, but former Canadien Alex Galchenyuk beat Cayden Primeau with a backhander from the high slot at the 16-second mark. It was only the fourth goal in 23 games for Galchenyuk, whose fortunes have declined since the Canadiens selected him with the third overall pick in Marc Bergevin’s first draft in 2012.

Before the period was over, John Tavares and Pierre Engvall scored on rebounds and Mitch Marner produced a highlight-reel goal when he skated past the net and then reached back to slip the puck behind Primeau. The 21-year-old rookie gave up four goals on 15 shots and Dominique Ducharme replaced him with Jake Allen to start the second period.

The change was a bit of a surprise because Allen has faced a punishing schedule during Carey Price’s absence, but the veteran did settle things down. Ilya Mikheyev beat Allen midway through the second period, but the goal was immediately waved off because Stefan Noesen was in the crease.

The Canadiens thought they had a goal to start the second period when Jesperi Kotkaniemi put a  puck behind Jack Campbell during a power play, but the video review determined that defenceman Justin Holl swept the puck away before it fully crossed the goal line.

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Cole Caufield ended Campbell’s shutout in the second and Artturi Lehkonen scored in the third period, but Auston Matthews scored his league-leading 40th goal with just under five minutes remaining. Allen finished with 19 saves over the final two periods.

Tomas Tatar returned to the lineup after missing five games with a lower-body injury, but Phil Danault, the team’s top defensive forward, suffered an undisclosed injury in the first period and left the game.

phickey@postmedia.com

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