National Post (Latest Edition)
Leafs claw back to win OT thriller
You know the old saying about a wild game that could’ve been played 10 times with a different result?
If that’s what unfolds like Wednesday night through all 10 matches between Toronto and Montreal in this Canadian-flavoured schedule, hockey-starved fans won’t complain, though the coaches will.
“Wasn’t that fun?” quipped Joe Thornton.
The recent series of tight games between the old rivals went to 5-4 overtime in the opener, settled by Morgan Rielly of the Maple Leafs with 1:36 to go. Jimmy Vesey’s first of the year forced extra time, a groaner goal for the Habs after their clearing pass behind the net struck referee Kendrick Nicholson and allowed William Nylander to easily get his third point of the night setting up Vesey.
Despite coming from behind twice, Leafs’ Sheldon Keefe had to be cross, as his team was the most reckless over 60 minutes at empty Scotiabank Arena. While they unveiled some new/old talent up front and showed off their arsenal on the power play, mistakes on the back end, where they’re also supposed to be much better this year, kept dogging them.
Frederik Andersen began a very scrutinized season in net facing 30 regulation shots, beaten early in the third by Josh Anderson, one of the new Habs who will tighten up this new version of the century rivalry. But he stopped Anderson on an OT breakaway.
While Toronto has consistently finished ahead of Montreal as its rebuild went faster, the Canadiens didn’t lose to them last year and will be a bigger handful now. Keefe and the Leafs have been adamant about taking the extra point in these situations, with a record of 1-5 in shootouts last year haunting them at playoff time.
The Leafs were mostly chasing the game, down two goals, until back-to-backto-back Montreal penalties late in the second. At 5-on-4, and with a defender sans his stick, Nylander snapped his second of the game. Then came a two-man advantage with all the big guns given room to set up, Mitch Marner finding John Tavares for the tip. Among the assists to come out of that, Jason Spezza’s 600th of his career and one for Andersen.
It hadn’t looked very good for the Dane earlier in the game, as his team was gambling too much, caught in its own penalty trouble and Carey Price was outshining him. Price made a huge early stop on Marner when he and Auston Matthews came in full throttle and denied Joe Thornton on the shift before Nylander finally put one through traffic off a Tavares faceoff win.
In between those saves, the second Leaf penalty of the period was costly when Nick Suzuki was quick on a rebound that had hit the inside of the post and spun Andersen out of position. The Leafs were deflated again with under 23 seconds to play in the first period when Anderson struck.
Zach Bogosian’s second minor of the night, trying to impede a rushing Hab, led to Tomas Tatar’s breakaway goal as the Leaf penalty killers changed.
The Leafs now have two games in Ottawa this weekend, where you can expect to see one or two of the six-man Taxi squad get in the lineup. But don’t use the ‘T’ word around the coaching staff.
“It’s a ‘stay-ready squad’,” Keefe insisted, crediting Brooklyn Nets’ coach Steve Nash with the term. “That speaks to the mindset that they have to stay ready, continue to work. And it falls on the coaching staff to do our part to keep them ready, particularly for a season like this.”
With equal parts a marathon, sprint, concert tour and science experiment, the Leafs begin their 2021 season, the 2020 part already lost to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s been enough time off for everyone, enough uncertainty,” declared Leafs alternate captain Rielly before the game. “We’re just happy to be back playing hockey.
“We just want to get back into a routine, driving to the rink at the normal time. (Wednesday) will be a little different than years past, but we’re fortunate to be playing and be back in the building.
“Playing teams in Canada, eight, nine or 10 times, a crammed schedule with not a whole lot of practice, all the (health) protocols put in place, it’s going to be interesting.
“We’re curious to see what road trips are going to look like. Over time, we’ll get comfortable with it. Right now it’s a little foreign.”
In a timely opening ceremony, Maple Leaf forward lines and defencemen gave way to the front line workers and those keeping Ontario moving during COVID-19.
With no fans in the building or jamming Maple Leaf Square, the team tried to make the best of their 104th season start with canned crowd noise and a pre-recorded intro of players and coaches by the health care community. Doctors, nurses, administrators, paramedics and TTC drivers, seen in hospitals, operating rooms and behind the wheel, called on Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, while a bearded dairy farmer was picked for Joe Thornton.
The Leafs also found a way to incorporate the 48th Highlanders Pipe Band, who had appeared at every home opener since 1931 at the Gardens. After some shots on the video screen of the pipers massed on the ice in previous years, they were shown playing in unison from their various living rooms and garages.