When the Toronto Maple Leafs skated on to the ice at Air Canada Centre before an ecstatic, jam-packed crowd of 19,730, the largest crowd of the shortened season, it was a monumental moment in the history of the franchise. After all, after eight straight seasons of falling short, the Leafs had managed to earn a hard-fought fifth-place position and a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2004.
However, in their first game back in Toronto since clinching a playoff spot, which was solidified with a 4-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators in the Battle of Ontario the Saturday prior, the boys in blue and white responded with an excruciatingly painful loss. Facing off against the Original Six rival Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs appeared sluggish at best. After a respectable first period, in which both teams had their share of offensive opportunities, the Leafs would find themselves up 1-0 on a powerplay marker from red-hot Phil Kessel.
Things would take a drastic turn for the worse in the second frame, as the Canadiens outshot the Leafs by a margin of 11 to 1 and made a strong case for starting backup goaltender Peter Budaj in net in favor of starter Carey Price. Instead of executing its potent, sixth-best offensive capabilities, the Leafs would find themselves hemmed in their own zone for the most of the period and victimized on a pair of goals.
Veteran defenseman Andrei Markov scored at the 4:19 mark of the second off a nice feed from Lars Eller, while 21-year-old rookie Brendan Gallagher tucked one under the left pad of James Reimer at 9:18 from Eller and Markov. With Rene Bourque in the box for slashing at 18:08, the Leafs were called for too many men on the ice during the ensuing powerplay at the 19:30 mark. The way things were going, the Leafs were simply happy to head to the dressing room down by one goal after 40 minutes.
The game would become more aggressive at the start of the third period, with a double-minor, 10 minute misconduct and game misconduct -- a total of 24 penalty minutes -- assessed to Leafs enforcer Frazen McLaren in the aftermath of a scrum along the boards. Soon after, center Tomas Plekanec would put the puck past a screened Reimer at 2:25, signalling Leafs coach Randy Carlyle to replace the netminder with backup Ben Scrivens.
The heated action would continue between both clubs, with chirping between Gallagher and Leafs first rounder Nazem Kadri alongside penalties to the trio of the Leafs Clarke MacArthur and Dion Phaneuf and Canadiens P.K. Subban. Ultimately, the homecoming for the Leafs following their emotional playoff-clinching game against the Senators in the previous edition of Hockey Night in Canada was spoiled.
Despite the loss, the Maple Leafs locked up the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, with the Ottawa Senators falling to the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 on Saturday. The club now awaits the decision of a Sunday game between the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators to determine their first round playoff opponent. A victory of any means by the Bruins will crown them Northeast Division champions, pairing the Canadiens with the Leafs in the quarterfinals. A victory by the Senators in any fashion drops the Bruins to 4th and has the team battle the Leafs in the opening round. Puck drop is at 7:00 PM Eastern.