Wednesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs embarked on their 102nd regular season by squaring off against the Montreal Canadiens, their oldest rival and fellow original six National Hockey League (NHL) team at the newly renamed Scotiabank Arena.
This year, the Maple Leafs are the leading candidate to win the Stanley Cup according to NHL players, hockey analysts and of course fans.
With the offseason acquisition of John Tavares, the long-time New York Islanders' superstar who agreed to a seven-year $77-million contract on the opening day of free agency, and maturing players like Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen expectations are at an all-time high for one of the most highly anticipated seasons in decades.
In addition to Tavares, the Leafs had four players making their team debuts, including top-six winger Tyler Ennis as replacement for absentee RFA William Nylander, Par Lindholm centering the fourth- line and Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) import defenseman Igor Ozhiganov.
"It was tremendous. To have that type of welcoming from this fan base and this city is pretty special. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity,” said Tavares on the ovation he received during pregame introductions. “I just want to take advantage of it and give it everything I've got and hope to make them proud and be a part of a lot of success here.”
First period recap
The Canadiens outshot Toronto 6-1 to open the game before Artturi Lehkonen banked a shot off Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey from behind the net to take a 1-0 lead at 9:34 of the first period.
Shortly thereafter, Matthews took a feed from Morgan Rielly at the left face-off dot and used a subtle toe drag to change the angle before unleashing a wrist shot over netminder Carey Price's glove at 12:57.
Second period recap
At 18:07 of the second period, Tavares moved past Matthew Peca and roofed a shot over Price’s blocker which gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead.
"I'm sure it's a big sigh of relief for him to kind of get the monkey off the back and just go play now," said Matthews . "I can't imagine what he's gone through the past three or four months and all the hype leading up to his first game."
The Canadiens got a late power play and evened the score at 2-2 when Andrew Shaw one-timed a pass from Max Domi, the son of former Leafs' tough guy Tie Domi, in the slot on the power play and beat Andersen upstairs with 12.3 seconds left on the clock. Shaw was playing his first game in nearly seven months after suffering a knee injury March 13.
Domi, acquired in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes on June 15 for Alex Galchenyuk, recorded two assists in his Canadiens' debut.
"We were here from the puck to drop. We had all four lines going, just have to limit a couple of turnovers and have a little bit more discipline,” said Domi. "All in all, it was a heck of an effort by our team; it was a great game by [Price] and definitely a lot to build on, for sure.”
For Toronto, Nazem Kadri recorded two assists.
Matthews performs overtime magic
"It was a perfect pass, I thought. [Patrick Marleau] had me there, and I was able to just get it over [Price]," Matthews said. "He made a lot of diving saves where he got his leg out when it looks like it's going to go in the back of the net, so that's why he was one of the best goalies. It was just a great pass from [Marleau]."
Shaw and Habs are disappointed
"They came out jumping," said Matthews. "They work hard. I think a lot of people have written them off, but they're hungry."
”It was huge, especially coming in against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They have a stacked lineup, a lot of skill, a lot of speed," said Shaw. "We knew we needed to come out here and work hard. I think the boys are a little disappointed with what happened and how we lost, but we worked hard, we competed, we were in the game the entire time."
Coach Babcock’s comments
For much of the game, Montreal had the upper hand as Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen, who set a franchise record for wins last season with 38, was forced to make 34 saves, including 15 in the third period, to bail out his teammates on a number of occasions.
“I don't think we played our best, I don't think we played in their zone enough or as much as we'd like to, but they competed and skated well and put some pressure on us," said Tavares. "It seemed like we were fighting the puck a bit. We just have to be a little bit more sure of ourselves."
Leafs' head coach Mike Babcock was happy with the victory, but not how his team got there. "We won the game, but [the Canadiens] worked way harder and played way better than we did tonight," said Babcock.
"[The media] can write all they want and tell everybody how great we all are, but it's the NHL, and you have to come to work every day. If you don't work harder than the other team, if you don't put your work before your talent, you don't win, so there's probably lots of good messages tonight."
Legit, but must play to win
As previously mentioned in another article, the Leafs as the legitimate 2019 Cup favorite might be long overdue. However, they’re still a young team, their defense is questionable and more importantly they haven’t won a playoff round since 2004. Then again, with the lineup they have anything’s possible as long as they show up to play every game.
Let's Go Leafs!
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