Canadiens aim for stronger start against Leafs

The Montreal Canadiens will look for a better start when they visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

Toronto scored 16 seconds into the game Thursday night on the way to taking a 4-0 lead over Montreal in the first period.

The Maple Leafs (34-13-6, 74 points) went on to defeat the Canadiens (24-20-9, 57 points) 5-2 in a possible preview of a first-round playoff matchup.

Toronto is first in the North Division and Montreal is fourth, both with comfortable margins.

The Canadiens, who are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot, hope to fare better in the final regular-season matchup between the teams on Saturday night.

“They jumped all over us,” Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot said. “We were slow out of the gate. We spotted them a couple of goals, and it was uphill from there on. On a back-to-back, that’s not easy.”

Montreal had lost 5-1 at the Ottawa Senators the night before.

Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme wanted to give the overworked Jake Allen a rest when he started rookie Cayden Primeau in goal against the Maple Leafs.

But after the first period, Allen replaced Primeau and allowed only the league-leading 40th goal of the season by Auston Matthews in facing 20 shots in the final two periods.

“With Carey (Price) injured, I didn’t want to do it in the middle of the period and have Jake go in cold and risk another injury,” Ducharme said. “My decision was taken midway through the first period, but I wanted (Primeau) to battle through to the end of the first.”

Price (concussion) has been out since April 19 but could play in one of the Canadiens’ final two games of the season next week against the Edmonton Oilers.

With his third-period goal, Matthews extended his goal streak to five games. He has reached the 40-goal mark in his 49th game. The Maple Leafs’ record in that regard belongs to Frank Mahovlich, who reached 40 goals in 48 games in the 1960-61 season.

“I think I’ve used a lot of my words on him, but there’s been so much to talk about him all season long,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It’s just so great to see him get rewarded offensively because he puts a lot of pressure on himself, or at least knows he has great responsibility to produce for our team offensively, and he delivers on it. He’s delivering on it at such a great rate. Nice to see him get that accomplishment here.”

“It means a lot,” Matthews said. “I play with some really, really special players. Obviously, we’ve had a really, really good season so far. I just feel really, really fortunate. It’s a team sport; there’s a lot that goes into it.”

Both teams had several players out on Thursday. Toronto was without Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno, Riley Nash, Zach Bogosian and Frederik Andersen. Only Bogosian is not expected to be ready for the opening of the playoffs.

Montreal was without Shea Weber, Price, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Erik Gustafsson. The Canadiens hope to have all back for the playoffs.

Tomas Tatar returned to Montreal’s lineup Thursday after missing five games with a lower-body injury,

The Canadiens picked up another injury Thursday when Phillip Danault left with an upper-body injury after playing about three minutes. Ducharme said he wasn’t sure about the extent of the injury.