Tarps covered the seats where spectators should have been on Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena. The 48th Highlanders of Canada played their bagpipes on opening night, although virtually for the first time. A tribute was held for frontline workers before the puck dropped. Stands were empty at the Maple Leafs’ first home game for the first time in 104 years.
Yes, it was different. But there was hockey, and it was fun. The plan the NHL came up with for an all-Canadian division looked brilliant right out of the box.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens hooked up for the first of 10 encounters within the North Division this truncated 56-game season and it was a beauty. The play was a bit ragged early on but that was to be expected with teams having short training camps and no exhibition games because of COVID-19.
Toronto won 5-4 on a goal by Morgan Rielly with 1:36 left in overtime. William Nylander scored twice for the Maple Leafs, and Josh Anderson had two goals for Montreal. There were four lead changes, and Toronto came back after trailing three times.
All in all, there was was a lot to take in.
The Maple Leafs began the night with a 41-year-old on their first line. While doing so, Joe Thornton was older by one year than head coach Sheldon Keefe and five years older than general manager Kyle Dubas. And Jumbo Joe showed his worth with passes to teammates in good spots, he forechecked hard and was still skating with some steam near the end.
Along with Thornton, Toronto dressed six other new players – Alex Barabanov, Zach Bogosian, TJ Brodie, Aaron Dell, Wayne Simmonds, and Jimmy Vesey.
Simmonds, who has earned his keep in 13 years in the league by being a battle-ready nuisance around the net, triggered a fight with Toronto behind 3-1 in the second period and that changed the momentum.
“I felt the boys needed a spark there,” said Simmonds, who is 32 and grew up in Toronto but only joined the team as a free agent in October.
Simmonds was fighting for position in front of the net when he drew a crosschecking penalty on Montreal defenceman Ben Chiarot. Simmonds then invited Chiarot to drop his gloves – and then dropped him quickly with three punches.
As he skated to the penalty box for a fight, Simmonds let out a roar.
“That was the turning point for sure,” Nylander said. “We played a little soft and were slow at the beginning, and that fired us up.”
Nylander scored on a power play with two minutes left in the second period to cut Toronto’s deficit to 3-2 with two minutes left in the second period, and then the Maple Leafs scored again 81 seconds later, still on a power play, when Tavares tipped in a pass past Canadiens goalie Carey Price.
Although the new North Division was established this year because of border restrictions related to COVID-19, it is actually a return to the NHL’s rivalry roots. The league was made up only of Canadian teams in its first seven seasons until the Boston Bruins became the first U.S.-based franchise in 1924-25.
Canada’s seven teams are vying for four playoff positions in what is likely to be a heated race.
The game excited from start to finish – and promises to make games interesting to say the least.
Carey Price slid across the crease of the net to stop a dangerous shot by Mitch Marner 3 minutes 36 seconds into the game. The near-goal was set up by passes from Thornton and Auston Matthews.
The Maple Leafs were called for too many men on the ice on a bad shift change by newcomer Jimmy Vesey, giving Montreal its second power play of the first period. The Canadiens cashed in when Nick Suzuki rifled a puck past Frederik Andersen from a tough angle with 8:23 remaining.
Price made a sprawling save to stop a shot from in close by Thornton, but he couldn’t stop the next one -- a slap shot from Nylander that tied the game 1-1 a little more than four minutes before the first intermission.
It looked like the teams would head for their dressing rooms deadlocked, but Josh Anderson beat Frederik Andersen with a sharp wrist shot with 23 seconds left in the first to put Montreal up 2-1. It was the first goal as a Canadien for Anderson, who was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade in October for Max Domi.
Montreal went up 3-1 with a power-play goal by Tomas Tatar with 12:40 left in the second period. It came after newcomer Zach Bogosian was penalized for the second time, and following a lovely stretch pass by the Canadiens’ Alex Romanov.
Anderson put the Canadiens back in front 4-3 with 18:57 remaining when he slipped a puck beneath Andersen’s arm on a rush to the net. The Toronto goalie stopped 28 of the 32 shots he faced, while Price stopped 29 of 34.
Vesey, who signed as a free-agent, then tied it 4-4 with 9:27 left when he flipped a puck past Price after a nice pass from Nylander.
The teams went to an extra five-minute three-on-three period and Rielly ended it with 1:36 left.
“It was a good game to play in and watch, and a good game to win,” Rielly, who logged 28 minutes 35 seconds of ice time, said. “To open the year with a win is always a good feeling.”
The Maple Leafs play next on Friday and Saturday before they return home on Monday to face the Winnipeg Jets. After that, Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers come to town for games on Wednesday and Friday.
There were some rough spots – a couple of costly line changes, for one – but head coach Sheldon Keefe was satisfied.
“We had a pretty emotional comeback win, so I am not going to get nitpicky,” Keefe said.