Habs beat Leafs in OT to force Game 7

MONTREAL — Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored at 15:15 of overtime as the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on Saturday to force a seventh and deciding game in their first-round playoff series.

Corey Perry and Tyler Toffoli had the goals in regulation for Montreal. Carey Price made 41 saves inside an electric Bell Centre — the first Canadian hockey crowd since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly 15 months ago.

With his team struggling to generate anything in the extra period — Montreal was outshot 13-2 — Kotkaniemi ripped his third of the playoffs glove side from the high slot after Toronto defenceman Travis Dermott, who was in the lineup for Rasmus Sandin after a rough Game 5, turned the puck over to Paul Byron along the boards in the Leafs’ zone.

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Jason Spezza and T.J. Brodie scored for Toronto, which beat Price twice with under 10 minutes to go in regulation to tie it. Jack Campbell stopped 28 shots for the suddenly wobbly Leafs.

The Canadiens, who won Game 5 in overtime at Scotiabank Arena and are looking to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win for the third time in franchise history, now head to Toronto for Monday’s finale with wind firmly in their sails.

The Leafs, meanwhile, desperately need to get back on track or face the prospect of another disastrous playoff exit for a team and fan base that’s suffered without a Stanley Cup, or much to get excited about, for the last 54 years.

Game 6 of this showdown between Original Six combatants with a long history, although not much of it recent, was played in front of a boisterous 2,500 fans inside the 21,302-seat venue after the Quebec government relaxed some restrictions and the province’s curfew ended Friday.

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The winner of Toronto-Montreal will take on Winnipeg after the Jets registered a surprising sweep of Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers in the Canadian-based North Division’s other first-round series.

Badly outplayed through 40 minutes, but still tied 0-0, the top-seeded Leafs got a power play early in the third period, but Price denied NHL regular-season goal leader Auston Matthews on the doorstep.

The Canadiens then got their second man advantage of the night when William Nylander went off for goalie interference, and Perry scored his first of the playoffs at 5:26 on a mad scramble in front as the Bell Centre exploded in celebration.

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Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe had his challenge for goalie interference denied, which put Toronto back down a man. Toronto star Mitch Marner then fired a clearing attempt over the glass to gift the home side a 5-on-3 power play for 1:41.

And the Canadiens made the Leafs pay when Toffoli squeezed his first past Campbell at 6:43 to stretch the lead to 2-0 as Montreal fans — masked and socially distanced — rejoiced throughout the cavernous building.

Down to five defencemen after Jake Muzzin left with an apparent groin injury in the second, Spezza breathed life into Toronto at 11:35 when his shot went in off the stick of Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry before Matthews hit the post a couple minutes later.

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The Leafs continued to push, and Brodie fired his first goal of 2021 off Petry’s skate and past Price with 3:11 left in regulation before being mobbed by teammates inside a stunned Bell Centre.

Without a playoff series victory in 17 years, but 11-1 all-time when leading a series 3-1, the Leafs were still minus captain John Tavares (concussion, knee), but Nick Foligno (lower-body injury) returned to the lineup after missing three games, while Canadiens counterpart Jake Evans was back in after getting hurt in the opener. Montreal also inserted defenceman Brett Kulak for the injured Jon Merrill.

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Spurred on by the first Canadian hockey crowd in nearly 15 months — fans of both teams belted out O Canada to a national television audience — Montreal came out on firing and led 8-0 on the shot clock during an early barrage that included a Toronto power play.

Campbell, who was jeered by the crowd early and often, made big stops on Toffoli, Shea Weber, Nick Suzuki and Eric Staal, with the Leafs firmly on their heels.

Toronto, which finished the regular season first in the division, 18 points up on Montreal, finally started to settle down as the period wore on, but Price was there to deny Nylander and Foligno, prompting the first chants of “Carey! Carey!” from the home crowd in more than a year.

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Montreal continued to push with rookie sniper Cole Caufield ringing a shot off the post 90 seconds into the second period. Campbell denied Toffoli on a 3-on-1 as the Leafs continued to turn the puck before Staal had the Toronto goaltender at his mercy on another odd-man rush, but Canadiens supporters waiting to explode groaned as the puck sailed over the crossbar.

Phillip Danault had another good chance with the Canadiens coming in waves, and things went from bad to worse for Toronto — the only good news was the score remained 0-0 — when Muzzin departed with the trainer.

The scenes outside the Bell Centre before puck drop resembled some level of normality as fans enjoyed beers in the sunshine.

The Canadiens gave Game 6 seat priority to season-ticket holders, luxury-suite holders, and corporate partners to purchase tickets in pods of two or four.

Buyers were allowed to resell tickets, and more than a few took advantage. Prices were exorbitant for the average fan on the secondary market, with the cheapest pair available a couple of hours before puck drop still priced around $1,800 on Ticketmaster.

But for Canadiens fans in attendance — and with the money available — it was worth every dollar.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2021.

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