Mark Giordano turned 40 last week. On Wednesday, the Maple Leafs defenceman was geared up to begin his 18th season in the NHL. Opening night never gets old for him.
“You start feeling it on Monday,” Giordano said hours before Toronto and Montreal dropped the puck on the 2023-24 season at Scotiabank Arena. “On Tuesday in practice you feel the excitement and your adrenalin starts to pick up. Every time, every year, it is great to get into the real games.”
It is the 22nd time for the Original Six rivals to meet in a season opener, more than any other two teams in the league. Their rivalry dates to 1917 and between them they have won 37 Stanley Cups.
It is hard to come out of the gate with anything better.
“I mean, it’s Montreal-Toronto, right?” Brad Treliving, the Maple Leafs first-year general manager, said Tuesday. “Leafs-Habs. Seriously. Come on, we are all pretty lucky.”
As it turned out there were plenty of thrills and spills Each team took and blew leads, Toronto introduced a new goal song – Pursuit of Happiness by Kid Cudi – Ryan Reaves and Tyler Bertuzzi bared their knuckles before the home crowd for the first time, Auston Matthews scored three times and the Maple Leafs came from behind twice for a 6-5 shootout victory. Mitch Marner roofed a shot over Montreal goalie Jake Allen to win it.
Fraser Minten, Toronto’s 19-year-old centre, was given the honour of taking a solo lap around the ice before his teammates as it was his first professional game.
“It is kind of fun for me seeing a guy who is 21 years younger than me in the lineup, but at the same time it is exciting,” said Giordano, who was about to play his 1,103rd regular-season game. “He is going to be nervous to get those first couple of shifts out of the way.”
In his debut, Minten played 11 and a half quiet minutes without a big moment or major mistake.
Before the game, fans jammed the concourses and perused new dining options and visited swag shops. They pored over auction items that included a signed Tom Brady Jersey – minimum bid $4,000 – a football helmet autographed by Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes ($3,000), a framed jersey signed by Auston Matthews ($1,400) and a scoresheet from his first NHL game ($750.)
Cole Caufield and some of his Montreal teammates played soccer in the hallway outside the visitors’ dressing room. Not far from there, bagpipers and drummers from the 48th Highlanders, the famous Toronto infantry regiment, tuned up before a performance during pregame ceremonies.
Minten wasn’t the only newcomer to line up for the first time for Toronto in a real game. So did Tyler Bertuzzi, Noah Gregor, John Klingberg, Reaves and Max Domi, too.
In their first time out, Gregor scored and Klingberg had two assists.
It was the first of three meetings between the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs during the 2023-24 campaign and the start of a three-game homestand that continues with engagements against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday and Chicago Blackhawks on Monday. It will mark Connor Bedard’s first visit to Toronto as a professional; in his first two contests he has a goal and two points.
It was a sloppily played game but entertaining nonetheless. Defence and goaltending was shoddy on both sides. No lead was safe.
The Canadiens got on the board barely three minutes into the first period when centre Jake Evans buried a wrist shot past goaltender Ilya Samsonov from 11 feet out. Evans raced down the ice alone after a turnover by T.J. Brodie.
Play was ragged with a few hard knocks tossed in. Reaves, the veteran enforcer, was hit hard behind Montreal’s net by Arber Xhekaj. A fight ensued with Reaves on the losing end but it enthused the crowd. The 36-year-old was cheered as he headed to the penalty box for five minutes.
Montreal increased its lead to 2-0 shortly after the second-period puck drop. Alex Newhook scored off a beautiful tic-tac-toe on the receiving end of sharp passes from Juraj Slafkovsky and Kirby Dach.
After the Canadiens had a goal wiped by Caufield wiped out for offsides, Gregor scored on a lengthy wrist shot with 12:14 left in the second. Klingberg was credited with his first assist.
“Getting a goal erased is a huge moment,” Toronto coach Shewldon Keefe said. “It’s a big swing.”
Matthews tied it at 2-2 on a power play a little more than seven minutes later with helpers awarded to Mitch Marner and John Tavares.
William Nylander put them ahead for the first time 44.5 seconds before the intermission, again on a power play, with assists by Klingberg and Tavares. Toronto fired an onslaught of shots – 17 to Montreal’s two in the second period.
Suddenly, though, the Maple Leafs got sloppy in the third period. Caufield scored for real with 15:35 left on a power play to knot it up at 3-3. The goal came with Bertuzzi in the penalty box after he had net- front row with Xhekaj.
Newhook added to the misery less than two minutes later when he tipped in a shot by Xhekaj to make it 4-3. Jesse Ylonen then beat Samsonov with a backhand with 8:05 remaining after a muff by Timothy Liljegren and it was 5-3.
Toronto scored twice in the last four and a half minutes though to tie it – both times by Matthews, both times with Samsonov pulled -- the last with 67 seconds remaining.
“When the game is looking dire and slipping away, that is what you need from your best people,” Keefe said.
Toronto overcame a penalty in the overtime and into a shootout it went.
The only one of six shots between the two teams to find the net was by Marner.
“We stayed with it and it is good to get the two points,” Tavares said. The captain had three assists. “You want to be at your best from the get-go and we know we weren’t today.
“Sometimes you have to win ugly and we found a way to do that.”
“Almost anything you can think of happened out there,” Keefe said. “The game was all over the place, which you don’t want to see.”
Allen stopped 37 of the 42 shots he faced. For Samsonov it was 19 of 24.
“It was not a fun game for a goalie, but we won,” Samsonov said. “I just want to forget this game.”