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MONTREAL — Alex Galchenyuk had plenty of memorable nights inside the Bell Centre.

The former-Montreal-star-turned-journeyman’s latest big performance in the venue — this time sporting blue and white — helped push his former team to the brink of elimination.

Galchenyuk set up Toronto’s first two goals on terrific passes before sealing the victory into an empty net as the Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 4-0 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.

The 27-year-old suited up 418 times in the regular season with Montreal, plus 27 more in the playoffs, after being selected third overall at the 2012 NHL draft.

But the Canadiens eventually decided moved on, and so has Galchenyuk.

“It’s the playoffs, man,” he said when asked if he still speaks with anyone on the other side. “You know what time it is right now.

“There’s no friends.”

Dealt to the Arizona Coyotes in 2018, Galchenyuk has bounced around since — Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Ottawa, plus an AHL stint after the Leafs acquired him in mid-February — but has done everything that’s been asked in Toronto.

That included being a healthy scratch in Game 1 before coming into the lineup when captain John Tavares was injured in a scary collision.

“Whatever role our team asks him to play, he comes in and does it tremendously,” said Leafs goalie Jack Campbell, who finished with a tidy 32 saves behind another stifling defensive showing for his first playoff shutout. “It’s not easy to come in and out of the lineup, but whenever he’s in he’s given us a spark.”

Jason Spezza, with a goal and an assist, the red-hot William Nylander and Joe Thornton also scored for Toronto, which can wrap up this best-of-seven meeting of Original Six rivals at home Thursday. Alexander Kerfoot added three assists on the heels of Monday’s 2-1 victory in Game 3 as the Leafs won twice in Montreal without goals from Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner.

“Scoring, defending, checking, all the way through the lineup, the guys dug down,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team has a two-game cushion in a series for the first time since 2002. “A lot of great efforts all the way.”

Carey Price stopped 24 shots for Montreal, which has scored just four times in 12 periods on Campbell in the first playoff meeting between the storied franchises since 1979.

“We’re playing against another team,” Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme said. “If we were going 5-on-0, we’d go up and down the ice the way we want.”

The Leafs, who won consecutive post-season games in Montreal for the first time since the 1967 Stanley Cup final, haven’t advanced to the second round since 2004.

Toronto is 11-1 all-time when leading a series 3-1 — a situation the Leafs haven’t found themselves in since 1987 — while 91 per cent of teams have advanced in the same scenario all-time.

If the Canadiens can force a Game 6 back in Montreal on Saturday, the Quebec government will allow 2,500 fans into the Bell Centre, which would be the first NHL crowd in this country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We should be hungry next game to come back for our fans,” Montreal centre Phillip Danault said.

Toronto opened the scoring 1:27 into the second period when Nylander shovelled home his fourth goal in as many games off a slick behind-the-back Galchenyuk feed.

“World class,” Campbell said. “It was awesome.”

Toronto’s netminder stopped Eric Staal at the other end on the next shift before Joel Armia fanned on a great chance later in the period. The Leafs immediately broke the other way, with Galchenyuk saucering a pass to Spezza, who was robbed by Price in Game 3 and stopped on a breakaway in Tuesday’s first period, for the 37-year-old to bury his second of the series at 12:28.

“A lot of credit goes to him just for his attitude,” Spezza said of Galchenyuk. “He’s been really determined. He understands that we have a deep team. Even when he was out, he had a great attitude.

“Great to see him have success. He’s been a big contributor.”

The North Division’s No. 1 seed, Toronto kept its foot on the gas, and Thornton made it 3-0 just 2:28 later on a power play when he redirected a Spezza pass at the side of Price’s net.

“He’s probably the best goalie of our generation,” Spezza said. “It’s just important that you don’t get frustrated.”

At 41 years and 327 days, Thornton became the oldest Toronto player to record a playoff point, passing both Ron Francis the late Allan Stanley (both 41 years, 62 days). He’s also the oldest Leaf to score in the post-season, passing Patrick Marleau (38 years, 222 days).

“I guess it’s great,” Thornton said with a smile when told of the milestones.

Montreal’s power play — now an anaemic 0 for 12 in the series — got another opportunity late in the period, but Brendan Gallagher’s shot that beat Campbell clanked off the post.

The desperate Canadiens pushed to start the third, with Campbell blocking Gallagher’s tipped effort before smothering the rebound.

“We’re doing pretty much everything really well defensively,” Campbell said. “We’re really doing a great job of limiting their grade-A chances.”

Galchenyuk then iced it into the empty net to secure the first three-point playoff game of his career as the Canadiens now face the daunting task of having to win three straight to keep their season alive.

“He’s handled himself extremely well,” Keefe said of Galchenyuk. “He just has a great passion for the game. He’s fit in very well, and he’s earned the respect of his teammates through the attitude that he’s brought and through the work ethic and how he’s played on the ice.

“He’s an important part of our team. A night like tonight is a good example.”

The Leafs were minus Tavares (concussion, knee) and forward Nick Foligno (lower-body injury), while defenceman Travis Dermott got the nod ahead of Rasmus Sandin, and centre Adam Brooks took Riley Nash’s spot.

Staal returned to the lineup after missing Game 3, but Artturi Lehkonen, who left Monday’s contest in the first period, and Jake Evans, out for a third straight night, were both scratched.

No matter who suits up for the Canadiens on Thursday, they’ll need a better effort top to bottom — and some goals — in order to get back in front of their fans.

“We’re going to see their absolute best,” Spezza said. “We have to make sure that we’re ready to go.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first reported May 25, 2021.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press