The slumping Montreal Canadiens host the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs for the second time this week, tonight on Hockey Night in Canada. The Habs have lost three of their past four games while the Leafs, who have the second-best points percentage in the NHL, have won four straight.
The Maple Leafs are the highest-scoring team in the league and nobody has scored more goals than Auston Matthews’ 11. While it’s not realistic to expect Matthews to score every game, he’s been on such a tear lately that it feels like he could score on just about every shot he takes. So, will Matthews score tonight? It’s a prop bet that I’m sure some of you reading this are considering.
Well, the answer might depend on how much he sees of Phillip Danault.
Despite losing to the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, the Canadiens did manage to keep Matthews from finding the back of the net — something they’ve been able to do in both games against Toronto this season and four straight games dating back to last season. Matthews has scored in nine of the other 11 games he’s played this season.
In Wednesday’s game, Matthews faced Danault more than any other Canadiens centre, matching up against him for just over five minutes at five-on-five. In those minutes, Montreal spent a majority of the time in Toronto’s end — the best possible recipe for keeping Matthews off the scoresheet.
Danault had a chance to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead less than three minutes into the game after gaining position on Matthews in front of the Maple Leafs net. Fortunately for the Maple Leafs, Frederik Andersen was able to make a couple of nice saves to keep it a one-goal game.
The only shot Matthews managed in his time against Danault on Wednesday came from above the face-off circles in the first period.
This is exactly where opposing teams want Matthews shooting from as keeping him to the outside of the slot is imperative in attempting to contain him. Matthews has scored 82 per cent of his career goals from the home plate, slot area. The best chance to limit the damage he can do against you is to limit his ability to shoot the puck from below the top of the face-off circles and inside the dots.
However, this is much, much easier said that done.
Matthews led the NHL in slot shots last season and trails only Connor McDavid so far this season. He’s one of the best in the world at creating these high-danger chances for himself.
On the flip side, Danault is one of the best defensive centres in the NHL and one of few who have managed to avoid being caved in by Matthews in his career when going head-to-head. In the 60-plus minutes Danault has spent against Matthews at five-on-five in their careers, the Canadiens have out shot and out chanced the Maple Leafs. However, Matthews scored twice in those minutes, the only goals scored by either team.
Limiting the amount of quality looks Matthews gets is the best you can hope for against such a talented goal scorer. It’s impossible to neutralize him completely, though Danault has shown to be more successful than most and is certainly the Canadiens’ best option at centre to do so. We’ll see how often Claude Julien goes with this match-up tonight.
Aside from keeping the most productive goal scorer in the NHL in check, the Canadiens will have to find a way to get back to their strengths offensively in order to beat the Leafs for the first time this season.
Montreal was the highest-scoring team in the league through 11 games, averaging over four goals per game. While unrealistic to expect that kind of offensive production over the course of a full season, the Canadiens have struggled to use their biggest weapon to their advantage recently — team speed.
In addition to leading the NHL in goals up until a week ago, Montreal also led the league in scoring chances off the rush and goals scored off the rush. In the Canadiens’ past three games, the amount of rush chances they’ve generated has been cut by well over half.
The Maple Leafs did an excellent job of preventing the Canadiens from attacking with speed through the neutral zone Wednesday night, limiting Montreal to five rush scoring chances.
Slow the Canadiens down and there’s a good chance you’ll win the game. Montreal has scored 14 of its 31 goals at five-on-five, off-the-rush. Only Nashville and New Jersey have relied on rush scoring more than the Canadiens this season.
If Danault’s line can, at the very least, draw even with the Matthews line and the Canadiens can get back to attacking up the ice as they did in their first 11 games, Montreal will have a good shot at closing the gap between itself and Toronto at the top of the Scotia North division.