Auston Matthews has picked up a point in all seven games against the Canadiens this season. Toronto's top-line centre has also scored in the last four meetings against Montreal.
"He's a pretty special player and he's been on a roll," said Canadiens winger Josh Anderson. "It's going to be a really good challenge, but a challenge that our line accepts. We like to have that mentality, that role of shutting down the top line. We're going to do everything we can to not let them score and try to be physical and not let them really have fun out there."
Despite being slowed at times by a wrist injury, Matthews has been remarkably consistent, scoring in 60 per cent of his games this season (28 of 47). Lately, he's been even more lethal, with goals in 13 of 17 games.
"He has this aura around him where you can tell he expects greatness out of himself," observed new linemate Nick Foligno. "It's fun to be around people like that. It's neat to watch. Even as an older player you appreciate guys who are good at their craft and Auston takes it very serious."
Anderson and linemates Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Phillip Danault should see most of the five-on-five minutes against Matthews, Foligno and Mitch Marner tonight.
"Phil's that gritty centre when he wants to be," Anderson noted. "He plays hard. He plays the right way. You saw the way he played against Connor McDavid when we were in Edmonton. He was hard. He was skating. He was physical and he had that mean side to him. We got to bring that."
Anderson was asked to compare what it’s like defending against Matthews versus McDavid.
"They're two different players," he said. "With McDavid, he has so much speed and so much skill and his hockey sense is off the charts,. so you never know, really, what he's going to do out there. With Matthews, he's grown a lot and you've seen what he's capable of doing this year. It seems like he scores every game, so you got to always know where he is on the ice. It seems that Marner usually likes to find him and he's pretty good at that and Matthews [is good at] finding that open ice too. We have to have our heads on a swivel and just know where those guys are and play hard on those guys."
Tonight is the first of three games between the Canadiens and Leafs this week. As things stand now, the forever rivals are on a collision course to meet in the first round of the playoffs.
"We just had a meeting about that, actually," revealed Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin. "We were talking about looking at a little mini-series here against them. It's definitely something we've talked about and we're thinking about. We're going to see these guys in the next three games and maybe in the first round of the playoffs, so it's a little introduction to maybe the playoffs here."
Toronto has won five of seven games against Montreal this season with one of those wins coming in overtime.
"They defend really well as a team," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "They're one of the top defending teams in the NHL in terms of what they don't give up, so offence is a challenge to come by. So, you're expecting the games to be tight and, for the most part, most of the games have been tight so just got to be sharp there."
The Leafs won the most recent meeting 4-1 last week in Montreal. However, every other game between the clubs has been decided by two or fewer goals.
"We look at our previous games and what we can adjust and get better at," Muzzin said of the team's prep, "and what they might adjust as well ... so a little chess match here for the next three games."
Keefe stressed that the focus remains on the task at hand tonight and the standings remain fluid. The Canadiens, after all, are chasing the Winnipeg Jets for the No. 3 seed.
"We're looking up in the standings right now," Anderson said. "We're not looking behind us. We're only two points behind Winnipeg."
During his time in Columbus, Foligno would jump into the arms of Elvis Merzlikins to celebrate wins. After a recent Blue Jackets victory, the Latvian goalie leaped up on his own wrapping his arms around his own body.
"I was laughing at the jump hug he did to himself," Foligno said. "It was pretty funny. I had to text him after."
After Sunday's practice, Foligno did a similar jump into the arms of backup goalie David Rittich. The pair shared a laugh. It was another example of Foligno looking comfortable with his new teammates and new surroundings.
Foligno has been praised for making a seamless transition to Toronto.
"I must be a good actor," the 33-year-old said with a chuckle. "I feel like I've screwed up a few things."
Muzzin, who was acquired by Toronto in a mid-season trade a couple years ago, spoke to Foligno after he arrived and urged him to be himself.
"It's a credit to the guys for making me feel that way," Foligno said. "Without having them get up and make the extra effort to make me feel welcome and a part of this early on maybe it wouldn't be that way."
"Different guys handle those situations differently," Muzzin noted. "I was maybe a little shy and kind of quiet until I felt really comfortable and felt like a bigger part of the team."
Foligno is more outgoing, it seems, and actually gave a short speech to his new teammates before his first game.
"I know who I am," Foligno said. "I'm comfortable with what I can bring and I'm just trying to do that and slowly work my way into it. Every day I'm getting more comfortable with the room, the training staff, the coaches, the system, but also knowing there's certain attributes I can bring to help move that along."
The Leafs have won five straight games since Foligno's quarantine ended and he joined the group in Winnipeg on April 22. Foligno has played in four of the games, producing an assist in each outing.
"They have something special here," Foligno said. "I've been on teams when you have that 'it' factor. You have that room that runs itself and the guys care a tremendous amount about each other. You can sense that in this room and I think that's so important. That's what drew me to this team ... They have the focus. They have the fun and they have the care, which I think is so important in this league."
Alex Galchenyuk celebrated emphatically after snapping a six-game goal drought on Saturday night.
"I feel good," he said after the game. "Last few games I definitely played better than the games before. I knew I got to be better and find my game a little bit. But, at the same time, got to stay focused. Keep building. Keep working on the same things and building that momentum."
Galchenyuk has three goals and six assists in 21 games with the Leafs.
After taking a puck to the face on Saturday night, defenceman Justin Holl didn't make the trip to Montreal. Timothy Liljegren will take his spot alongside Muzzin tonight. It will be Liljegren's second NHL game this season.
"I've been feeling good all year developing with the Marlies and just waiting for an opportunity," Liljegren said after logging 15 minutes and 35 seconds of ice time against the Canucks on Thursday. "It kind of took a couple of shifts there. I was so excited to play so it was kind of easy to get going. I felt like I played a solid game. It was fun."
With Morgan Rielly and Muzzin both sidelined for maintenance, Liljegren and Ben Hutton played in Thursday's win against the Canucks.
"How well our D corps did the other night when we had the big boys out, it was just a sign of how great our depth is," said Travis Dermott.
But that improved depth, especially the recent play of Rasmus Sandin, may make it tough for Dermott to maintain a top-six spot once Zach Bogosian returns from a shoulder injury in the playoffs.
"Honestly, it's great," the 24-year-old insisted. "You can think about it in a selfish way and go, 'Oh, damn, we got a lot of competition,' but we want to win a Cup. So, that’s our goal and defensive depth is an important part of that."
Toronto has held its opponent to one goal in each of the last four games while boosting their physical play.
"It’s definitely gotten better," said T.J. Brodie. "Something we've focused on that last couple weeks is getting stops behind the net, try to get pins and get between the guy and the puck and create those battles and it's definitely got better, but there's always room for improvement."
Projected Leafs lines for Monday's game:
Foligno - Matthews - Marner
Galchenyuk - Tavares - Nylander
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Simmonds
Thornton - Brooks - Spezza
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Liljegren
Sandin - Dermott