Can you feel it? The freezing winds of winter have turned into a warm breeze filled with excitement. The 2020-21 NHL season didn’t get going until the former year had already left us, but that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that the league we all love is back for a new season. Montreal started the slate by going back to familiar ground, returning to the very same place where they had such a strong post-season run at the end of the summer.
Both the guests and the hosts for last night’s game had gone through major changes since they last faced off, way back in February. That game ended with a Montreal win in overtime. The hero? Ilya Kovalchuk. That’s right. It has now been almost a year since that brief period when Kovalchuk spellbound us Habs fans with his trickeries.
Claude Julien sent out an expected lineup, giving newcomers Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Joel Edmundson, as well as rookie Alexander Romanov the possibility to start what hopefully will be illustrious careers in the Montreal Canadiens’ jersey.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who vowed to get older and slower this winter, sent out Joe Thornton as a first line-winger and also gave T.J. Brodie, Jimmy Vesey, Zach Bogosian and Alexander Barabanov their first chance to prove themselves to the public eye of Toronto.
The Canadiens started off with flair and energy, looking like a team that had longed for the season to kick off. Romanov, starting on the third pairing besides Brett Kulak, introduced himself to his new audience with a heads-up outlet pass that started his team’s first decent attack of the night. Eyes On The Prize’s very own Romanov preacher was not late to notice his protégé getting off to a terrific start:
Romanov with a great outlet pass, that starts the attack. pic.twitter.com/UhS7PTDg9J— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) January 14, 2021
The Habs received their first power play after Bogosian, who ironically was brought into Toronto to help their penalty kill, went to the box on a tripping call. No goals that time, but even a pessimistic eye could notice that there seemed to be more ideas and interesting shifts during those two minutes than we’ve generally seen in the last few years. Interestingly, Romanov received time on the second power-play unit, already in the first period, making it possible for Jeff Petry and Shea Weber to pair up together on the first.
A large part of why Marc Bergevin felt that it was possible to push in his chips to the middle of the table during this off-season was the play of his two young centremen during last season’s playoffs. One of those two would get the honour of scoring Montreal’s first goal of the new season.
After once again going on the man advantage, The Canadiens established possession in Toronto’s zone. Petry got enough open ice to skate forward and release toward Frederik Andersen. On the rebound, Suzuki scored from a difficult angle, netting it home via a defenceman positioned in the crease.
The Maple Leafs managed a quick tie-up when Jake Evans lost a faceoff in his own zone and William Nylander accurately sniped the puck past a screened Carey Price. A nice effort by the Swede, who looked to have shaved off his teeny tiny moustache as a sign of better things to come.
Montreal continued to attack with much more velocity than their opponents and it would result in another lead just a few minutes before the period break.
A few days ago, Tomas Tatar coined the term “powerhorse” to describe Anderson’s playing style. But the newly acquired powerful workhorse can add more than that to any given game. He demonstrated this with a wrist shot from the slot, perfectly placed below the goaltender’s glove. When Anderson beat Andersen, it meant that with just one period played in a Habs jersey, the winger had already tied his total goal tally from his last year with the Blue Jackets.
Bogosian wasn’t done taking penalties. He received his second near the middle of the second period, after once again arriving late to the party. This time he felt forced to grab ahold of Jesperi Kotkaniemi to prevent the young Finn from getting into adequate scoring range.
The power play continued to look potent, even if there were few high-quality chances while holding the puck in the offensive zone. Young Romanov demonstrated his fearlessness by dancing past a deking Torontonian on the opposing blue line.
One minute later, still on the same power play, Romanov held the puck in his own zone and discovered Tomas Tatar making a perfectly timed rush toward that same blue line. The pass cut through the defence like a hot knife through butter, and Montreal’s best point-getter from a season ago made no mistake alone with Andersen. The puck slowly waltzed through the goaltender’s legs and the guests were suddenly up by a pair of goals. Coach Sheldon Keefe looked less than happy with his team’s defensive efforts.
Apart from a fight between Simmonds and Ben Chiarot, which (technically) resulted in the first man advantage for the Maple Leafs, the game continued to go the Canadiens’ way. The lead looked solid and the home team had difficulties finding the right angles against Price.
Then, suddenly, everything imploded near the end of the second period. Anderson received a boarding minor, and if you give the Leafs’ stars enough space while having an extra man on the ice, they will punish you time and time again. Nylander got his second of the contest while Edmundson was missing his stick.
Shortly afterward, the Habs shot themselves in the foot twice within three seconds to give their opposition 1:57 of five-on-three time. Once again, the penalty kill looked lacklustre, and captain John Tavares tapped in his first of the year. Ironically, this happened while his counterpart, Weber, was in the box for failing to properly clear the puck out of his own zone.
There was no reason why we would have to be here, but when the teams got back on the ice for the third period, the game was all tied up at three apiece. To make matters worse, there were still 20 seconds left on Weber’s penalty. Thankfully, Toronto’s power play mania stopped at just two goals, meaning that the Canadiens could go back on attack while at five-on-five.
It’s fascinating how two GMs can look so differently on how you wish to build up your roster to compete for a championship. Toronto is adamantly top heavy and excels on the power play, while hoping to patch over any roster holes created by expensive contracts with size, experience, and grit. Meanwhile, a less star-studded Montreal tries to break their opponents down with a never-ending skating pace, pressuring furiously while attempting to attack with four lines of NHL quality.
If anyone wants to know why Marc Bergevin traded Max Domi and a third-round pick to Columbus this past October for Josh Anderson, look no further than the Canadiens’ fourth goal of the evening.
Using the very qualities I mentioned above, Montreal quickly transitioned from defence to offence by winning a faceoff to the right of Price. Anderson got a one-on-one opportunity against a misplaced Tavares and pushed himself in front of the Leafs centre to swiftly get to the net and whip the puck past Andersen and in. I mentioned earlier that it took less than one period to tie his total goal tally from last year. Well, it took less than three periods in a Habs jersey to double that quota.
Suzuki continued to dazzle when he got a bit of space to work with, showing exactly zero signs of an approaching sophomore slump like the one Kotkaniemi suffered through last year.
Lmao Nick Suzuki is just unfair pic.twitter.com/kBEi4fgYgZ— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 14, 2021
To this point, all of Toronto’s goals had felt somewhat flukey. But as previously stated, when a team has three or four of the league’s top talents, you need to prevent them easy opportunities. With 10 minutes left to play, a dumped puck bounced off the referee placed behind Price’s net to completely bamboozle the veteran goalie. Nylander quickly found a wide-open Jimmy Vesey in the crease. The former Hobey Baker-winner didn’t have to break a sweat to score, tying the score up yet again.
When the clock hit 60 minutes, the game was still tied at four goals apiece. During overtime, Phillip Danault ended up with the puck on the Leafs’ side of the ice, riding solo from mid-ice, but not getting a quality shot off. Tyler Toffoli also had a quality scoring chance, but his slapshot was prematurely read and stopped by Frederik Andersen.
Instead, the first game of the season would end with an overtime loss. Tavares and Morgan Rielly ended up in a two-on-one against Ben Chiarot. When the Habs defenceman decided to move to stop the puck-holder, Tavares fed his teammate across the crease, and Price could do nothing but watch as the red lamp in Scotiabank Arena went off for the final time this night, a 5-4 win for the home team.
Even if the game ended with an unnecessary loss of a point, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the season that lies ahead. The young players looked inspired and the newcomers have qualities that add further unpredictability to the team. The Canadiens will now have a few more days to practise before facing the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night for a possible first win of the new year.