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So this is how the Mike Babcock era begins.

A whisper-quiet building, with plenty of freebie Toronto Maple Leafs scarves left sitting on empty seats, a ponderous pregame ceremony and loads of Montreal Canadiens fans reddening the lower bowl.

A whiffed on a puck by his No. 1 goalie three minutes in to trail early.

And the biggest cheers reserved, without question, for the Toronto Blue Jays, who were piled into an Air Canada Centre box the day before they open their first playoff series in 22 years.

This was hardly a coronation fit for the franchise's $50-million man.

But it was an accurate portrait of where he's starting from.

The fan base is skeptical. Even the Leafs diehards aren't sure if they want this group to win or lose, given the rebuild would obviously benefit from another high draft pick.

It's going take a lot more than one decent effort to win them back, even with (perhaps) the best coach in the league on their side.

But, one game in, one decent effort is what they've got.

The Leafs lost on Wednesday night, which wasn't altogether unexpected. They'll lose a lot this season. But this was a close, hard-fought 3-1 game – including an empty-netter – against a Canadiens team that has eyes on competing for a Cup next spring.

It was a respectable performance. And Babcock's handiwork was all over it.

The Leafs were well-organized. They moved the puck well – in their zone, through the middle of the rink, on the cycle and on the power play, where they got their only goal off James van Riemsdyk's skate as he battled in front.

There were also few eyesore turnovers, which have been a hallmark of recent Toronto teams.

As veteran winger Dan Winnik had explained, a lot of what the Leafs new coach is asking for is proper positioning, with everyone in the right spot at the right time in a sort of fast-paced chess match.

Right away on Wednesday it appeared to be working.

"As long as we're working smart within the system and working hard within the system then that's where we can be a very dangerous team," was how veteran Brad Boyes put it.

"I thought we did lots of good things structurally," Babcock said. "I thought we won a lot of battles. In saying all that, I'd like us to score better. And I thought we could have been tighter at times in our own zone and through the neutral zone."

One of the game's best moments came when Babcock called the NHL's first-ever coach's challenge and got a Montreal goal disallowed midway through the second period.

He later credited assistant coach Andrew Brewer with spotting the infraction – Habs centre Tomas Plekanec's stick blatantly interfering with Jonathan Bernier – but it was another plus nonetheless for the newcomers behind the bench.

By far the shakiest aspect of Toronto's game came in goal, with Bernier awkwardly bumbling a Max Pacioretty shot on the first goal against and clearly out of position on several other near misses.

Montreal's Alex Galchenyuk then buried a generous rebound with eight minutes to go in the third.

That was the game.

Overall, the difference between the two teams was marginal. Carey Price was nearly airtight, Bernier wasn't, and many nights, that's enough.

"I think we're going to be playing a lot of close games," Winnik said. "It's really a coin flip when it's a tie game in the NHL."

Despite the low-scoring affair, the fans got off their hands and more into the game as it went along, perhaps realizing with every fight for a loose puck that the Leafs weren't going to be cannon fodder for the league just yet.

They looked reasonably hungry. They looked like they could at least compete with a Canadiens team that had 110 points last season. They even outshot them on the night, 37-30, and won the possession battle at 53 per cent.

For Day 1, that's something.

"I like to be proud when I leave the rink," Babcock had mused in the pregame. "I say it all the time. Nothing makes me more upset than lack of work ethic and lack of preparation."

Well, he had it in training camp, even if it was due to fear and the intense competition for jobs. And he got it Wednesday in the home opener, even if it was a loss.

Sustaining that might be the battle. Coaxing enough goals out of this motley crew could be the even bigger one, as several players whiffed on good looks at the net, none bigger than Nick Spaling's miss right before the Galchenyuk winner.

But the Leafs are embracing the underdog role, and you can begin to see how they catch some teams off guard early, if they can keep this kind of push going.

Babcock will certainly be counting on it Friday in Detroit, when he returns to face the Red Wings.

He'll demand it.

"There's no moral victories in the NHL," Babcock said. "You either won or you lost. It's real simple that way. But obviously [our] process is there and they're trying… "We've got some guys that can be better. So we'll talk about that, and we'll find a way to get better."

One down. Eighty-one to go.