Lots of playmaking, lots of scoring, lots of mistakes, lots of action, some overtime and a fight.
Nine more games between the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens like the one Toronto won 5-4 on Wednesday night could be a lot of fun.
“It was a good game to play in, and to watch,” said Morgan Rielly, who netted the overtime winner. “We open the year with a win. I mean, they’re a good team. They came out, played hard. That’s what we expected.”
Rielly scored with 1:36 left in overtime on a feed from John Tavares, as the Leafs earned early bragging rights in the first of 10 head-to-head games against their Original Six rivals. But nine more?
“Can’t wait,” said new Leaf Wayne Simmonds.
“I’m not too excited,” said Rielly, smiling. “I mean they’re hard games. They play hard. We’re going to play them again nine more times, and we’re going to play hard and expect the same from them. It’ll be entertaining to watch, to be a part of. But again, we’re just very grateful to be playing hockey right now.”
The Leafs season indeed started with a win, with the line of Tavares (one goal, two assists), William Nylander (two goals, one assist) and Jimmy Vesey (the overtime-forcing goal in his debut) doing most of the damage.
- ‘Green light go’ It’s been a long time — Colton Orr, maybe? — since the Leafs could turn to a fight as a turning point in the game. They were down 3-1 and the Habs had taken a penalty when Simmonds dropped the gloves and earned a quick decision over Ben Chiarot.
Nylander scored on the power play, and Tavares tied the game 3-3 on a later man advantage as the Leafs found life after Simmonds’ TKO.
“It was awesome,” Rielly said of Simmonds’ fight. “I think that’s what Wayne brings to this group. I mean, he’s been doing that in his career for a long time and it’s incredibly valuable.”
Simmonds said he fought Chiarot because he thought the Leafs needed a jolt. Folks have been saying that around here a while.
Here’s how he phrased it: “I felt good. That’s my first real game action in like, 10 months, 20 days — I could probably tell you to the second — but you know, I felt really good,” said Simmonds. “I thought the boys needed a little bit of a spark there and I know my role on this team. So I asked Chiarot and I didn’t think he’d want to go, then he dropped the gloves for me, so it was: Green light go. I’m happy he gave me that one. It helped turn the tide for our team.”
- Not picky: The teams indeed looked like they hadn’t played in a while. Passes didn’t always go where they were supposed to. Line changes weren’t smooth. But that more or less boosted the excitement level, which is always high anyway when these teams meet.
“Listen, it’s our first game of the season here, first game we’re playing at that tempo,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “We just had a pretty emotional comeback win here for our first game, so I’m not going to get too nitpicky. We’ll get better every day.”
- Better and better: For the first time in a long time, both teams are good and these head-to-head matches will mean so much more as a result. And all that hype you’ve been hearing about how formidable an opponent the Canadiens will be in this all-Canadian division may well be true.
Josh Anderson scored twice in his first game as a Hab, rookie Alex Romanov had two assists and the young Canadiens played like the formerly young Leafs used to: using speed and skill to create plays and draw penalties and make the other team pay for taking a shift, or a play or a period, for granted.
- Core strength: When it comes right down to it, it may not really matter who the Leafs add in the off-season. Their games come down to the performances of their core players: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Tavares, Nylander and Frederik Andersen.
If those guys are on — even for short bursts — the other team is in trouble.
If anything, Andersen was the weak link in the opener. He appeared to have no idea where the puck was when Nick Suzuki opened the scoring in the first period. And Anderson’s go-ahead goal in the third was one the Leafs netminder probably should have had.
Anderson is a notorious slow starter, saved in the past by the offence in the early going. He faced 32 shots, but did make a game-saver on Tyler Toffoli in overtime.
- The debuts: So Vesey scored, Simmonds had a fight and Joe Thornton had a big smile on his face.
“Wasn’t that fun?” said Thornton. “Boys were down early, but we managed to come back and what a great finish by Mo (Rielly).”
Thornton finished with 17 minutes and 30 seconds of ice time, two minutes more than he averaged last year. He had two shots.
T.J. Brodie certainly looked at home with Rielly, keeping plays alive in the offensive zone and quite reliable defensively. Brodie played 22:12, well behind Rielly’s team-leading 28:35.
Zach Bogosian (10:49) probably had better debuts in his other four NHL cities. He took two penalties — one led to a Montreal goal. And they were for hooking and holding, the kind that indicate he couldn’t keep up with the play.
As for Alex Barabanov, well, he wasn’t even the best Russian rookie named Alex on the ice. That was Montreal’s Romanov. Barabanov played a team low 5:27.
- Season’s greetings: A home opener with no fans and no guests meant a virtual show to be streamed or viewed by those who were not allowed to come. The Leafs made do with a virtual piping in by the 48th Highlanders, who’ve opened every season since 1931.
The players were introduced by a cultural cross-section of society, from a dairy farmer (who introduced Thornton), to front-line health workers, teachers, TTC drivers, delivery personnel and meat packers. Mental health advocates, children, Toronto police, firefighters and the armed forces were also included.
The team also praised front-line workers in a video tribute before puck drop, with both teams on the ice.
“I did have a little moment there — skating around in the morning skate before we got going, and you’re looking at the tarps that are covering the seats,” said Keefe. “Just another reminder that our fans aren’t going to be with us here, and that’s tough. You start to think about the fact that our fans aren’t going to get a chance to welcome our new players here in our home opener. That, to me, is always a cool moment. Those are all the kind of things that everybody’s adapting to. We’re grateful that we have an opportunity to entertain people here this season.”
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