A new season. An electric crowd. A packed house. Historic rivals. A rematch between playoff opponents, one whose improbable comeback triggered an extended pursuit of the Stanley Cup, the other whose collapse doomed them – again – to ignominy.
It all unfolded exquisitely on Wednesday night when the Maple Leafs welcomed the Montreal Canadiens to Scotiabank Arena to inaugurate the 2021-22 NHL season. It was more than just an opening game, however. It was a coming-out party for the sea of spectators who filled the rink for the first time in 582 days.
More than 18,000 (vaccinated) fans saw the Maple Leafs squeak out a 2-1 victory with the winning goal scored by William Nylander. The last time the rink was that full was March 10, 2020. Two days later, the spread of COVID-19 brought team sports to a standstill.
Canadian teams played without spectators or before minimal crowds. In Canada, hockey is as much a fall ritual as picking apples. After 18 months of anxiety, depression, illness and quarantine, there was a lot to celebrate.
Actor Will Arnett and Olympic swimmer Penny Oleksiak, gold medals dangling from her neck, were among the 18,493 revellers. So was the rock band Arkells.
Fans in various states of Leafs dress walked the concourses. A game-worn Auston Matthews helmet was the featured item at one silent auction. The minimum opening bid was $5,000.
In the team store, a rack of game-used Zach Bogosian, Alexander Barabanov and Zach Hyman sticks were on sale for $150. None play for Toronto any more. One of Nylander’s “Willy Styles” sticks is $300. Infant jerseys are $125.
There were cheers and pulsating music and ear-piercing horns. During one break, hearty applause was offered for a front-line worker improbably named Jonathan Tavares. He is not to be confused with John Tavares, the Maple Leafs’ captain. When Pierre Engvall scored Toronto’s first goal of the season there was bedlam.
“Right from the warm-ups the energy in the building was unbelievable,” Jack Campbell, the Toronto goalie, said. He stopped 31 of the 32 shots he faced.
Said head coach Sheldon Keefe: “The fans were outstanding from the time I walked out to the bench [before the game]. The crowd was engaged right from the start. They were a factor all the way through.”
It was the first of four games between the long-time adversaries and the 21st time they have met, preseason and playoffs included, in this calendar year. Theirs is the longest rivalry in the sport. They have faced off 837 times since 1917, 19 times in opening contests.
Toronto avoided near disaster when Brett Kulak and Christian Dvorak of Montreal missed shots at a wide-open net within 18 seconds of the puck drop. Later, Campbell stopped a dangerous backhand by Canadiens’ rookie Cole Caufield.
“[Jack] was a factor,” Nylander said. “It could have been 2-0 or 3-0 Montreal.”
Jonathan Drouin finally put the visitors ahead with 12:38 left in the first period, tapping in a soft pass from Josh Anderson. Engvall tied it on a power play less than two minutes later. Michael Bunting and Rasmus Sandin drew assists.
“The first 10 minutes were not good,” Keefe said. “It took us a while to get comfortable.”
The teams fought through a goalless and evenly played second 20 minutes. Toronto held a slight advantage in shots, 23-20, heading for the intermission. Nylander snapped a crisp shot past Montreal goalie Jake Allen a little more than a minute into the third.
“It was sweet,” Justin Holl, the Maple Leafs defenceman, said. “He really showed good patience and he picked his corner nicely.”
Back-to-back penalties 18 seconds apart gave the Canadiens a 5-on-3 power play but they failed to score. Campbell was sharp in the net and his teammates played well in front of him. Holl blocked one shot headed for a gaping open net.
It was an interesting start to an interesting season for both teams. Toronto lined up with seven new faces on its roster. Montreal had five.
The Maple Leafs were without Matthews, their star centre. The Canadiens begin the campaign without five key players: Shea Weber, Carey Price, Paul Byron, Joel Edmundson and Mike Hoffman.
Weber, the Montreal captain, will miss the year with an ankle injury. Price, one of the game’s most elite goaltenders, has entered the league’s player-assistance program and will be out indefinitely. In his stead, Allen, who filled in capably when Price was hurt earlier this year, will be in the net.
Matthews, who led the NHL with 41 goals last season, is still recovering from offseason wrist surgery. He is unlikely to play in the Maple Leafs first three games. They play again in Ottawa on Thursday and then are back home on Saturday to face the Senators.
Ilya Mikheyev, who underwent surgery on Wednesday to repair a broken finger, is out for eight weeks. Much was expected from him.
The last time the rivals met when results counted, Montreal overcame a 3-1 series disadvantage and rallied past Maple Leafs in seven games. The Canadiens made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Montreal was the first Canadian team to play for the championship since 2011, when Vancouver lost to the Boston Bruins. It was unexpected and a nice effort, but disappointing in the end.
“It sat with us all summer, but I think we’re all better off for that experience,” Brendan Gallagher, the Montreal forward, said. “We all learned what we did well, what we need to do better, and we’re looking forward to showing it this year.”
The Maple Leafs feel much the same. They won their division but then fell flat in the playoffs. They haven’t won a postseason series 2004.
“Last year, we focused on setting the standard,” Jake Muzzin, the Toronto defenceman, said following the morning skate. “We did a lot of good things but we fell short. We have to start on the right foot tonight.”
It was a night to remember for all that partook.
“It was very special,” Nylander said. “It felt like it was such a long time ago that we experienced something like this. It was nice to see fans back in the building.”