It was hardly textbook, but the Toronto Maple Leafs will take it.
The Leafs opened their 2011-12 regular season on Thursday much the same way they did a year earlier, toppling the Montreal Canadiens at home and owing much of the win to a big game from their No. 1 goaltender.
This time, however, it was James Reimer instead of Jean-Sébastien Giguère doing the honours, as the sophomore was the game’s first star in making 32 saves in a 2-0 victory.
His play was a welcome sign for the team’s brass, who signed Reimer to a three-year contract in the off-season on the basis of only 35 starts last season.
Reimer had to be particularly sharp in the early going, making 14 first-period saves with his team looking skittish and a little overwhelmed in front of him.
“He was unbelievable,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said.
Canadiens netminder Carey Price, on the other hand, could have been taking a nap until Matt Lombardi’s opening goal 33 seconds into the second period. He had faced only four shots up until that point, and the 2-on-1 play with his team on the man advantage probably caught him off-guard given how little the Leafs had threatened.
That first goal was a major turning point for Toronto, as it battled back on the shot clock in the middle frame and then went up 2-0 early in the third, with captain Dion Phaneuf finishing a 3-on-2 by taking Phil Kessel's pass and putting a heavy shot over Price’s shoulder.
“Kind of a Muhammad Ali, George Foreman fight,” Wilson said. “Let them pound away and then take them out as the game wears on.”
“We dominated the first period,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. “In the first period we played a simple game, we had a lot of puck support, we attacked the net, we put pucks on net. In the second, we tried to play individually, and the Leafs benefitted.”
In that sense, it was a fortunate win for Toronto, as the Leafs generated almost nothing on their power plays – including a lengthy 5-on-3 – and were out shot 32-18.
Montreal’s inability to produce quality chances after the first period, however, was the big difference.
Other positives on the night for Toronto were strong showings from their plumbers, with the new cast of penalty killers coming up a perfect 4-for-4 and keeping them in the game early.
Now, the Leafs have to hope the rest of the start of their season goes nothing like it did a year ago, when they went 4-0 in their first four games but won just four times in their next 20 to fall into the Eastern Conference basement by December.
"The No. 1 thing is the goaltending and James starts right where he left off last year as far as I'm concerned," Wilson said. "I thought our defence after the first period settled down and played really well.
"Up front, we've got to do a better job. We turned too many pucks over, but considering that's the first time that whole group has actually played a game together and we won, I don't have any complaints."
The game’s feel-good moment had to be Lombardi’s short-handed goal, as he hadn’t scored since he was a member of the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2010 playoffs – a span of 18 months.
Lombardi was playing for the first time in a calendar year after missing all but two games last season due to a severe concussion.
Immediately after lifting the puck over a sprawled Price, he went to the bench to celebrate and was mobbed by his teammates.
“It felt unreal,” Lombardi said. “It happened so fast. It was pretty awesome. Hard to explain.”
“I’m really happy for him,” Phaneuf said. “He’s been off for a year. So give him credit, how he did come back. Being off for that long is not easy.”
Lombardi played only 11 minutes in the game as he slowly regains his fitness level after so much time away. About a third of that was on the penalty kill, where he paired with Mike Brown on a speedy shorthanded unit.
"It's just gradually putting him into some situations," Wilson said. "One thing he can do is kill penalties. And I saw some good things. He was skating really well and pressuring the puck. He got banged two or three times and responded well to that.
"As we go here, you can probably look for him to get a minute or two more a game as we get him ready."
Big number: 358
Days between NHL games for Lombardi, who scored the winning goal.
Big number: 72%
The newest member of the Maple Leafs, centre David Steckel, was terrific in the faceoff circle, winning 18-of-25 draws in a specialist role he’ll likely fill all year. Wilson used him to take as many draws as he could, often putting Steckel on the ice simply to win a faceoff and then have him make a line change.
"He was big," Wilson said. "It was huge. We've been okay, the last couple years, we're been over 50 per cent. But he's a 60 to 65 per cent winner and that's a huge advantage, especially killing penalties. Every faceoff in our zone, as long as he wasn't winded on the bench, I put him out there ... It's an advantage that I haven't had since I've been here. To have a real go-to faceoff guy."
In all, Steckel took 25 of the Leafs' 61 faceoffs in the game, more than 40 per cent of their draws.
Quotable: James Reimer
"I thought we played great. Maybe we had a little lull in the first, but I thought overall, we played phenomenal. We did the little things well tonight. We forechecked hard, we won draws, the d-men I thought had a great gap ... I thought we just played a great team game. We've been coached really well in the last couple weeks, and they've really given us the tools to succeed. We've learnt them and we've worked hard, especially in the last week of practice. It showed tonight."
Boo birds for Wilson
Opening night in Toronto meant going through the rigmarole of introducing every trainer, skating coach and water boy one-by-one, with the memorable moment coming when Wilson received a notable round of boos to start his fourth season.
Defenceman Mike Komisarek wasn’t treated much more warmly – although as a former Canadiens player, he likely heard much of that from the Montreal fans in the house.Report Typo/Error
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