After a compressed yet tumultuous off-season, NHL hockey is back for what will hopefully be its first 82-game season since 2018-19. As tradition would have it, the Montreal Canadiens kicked off their season against their former North Division rivals from Toronto on Wednesday night.
The reigning Western Conference champions came into this contest without several of the key pieces that helped carry the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Final a few months ago. Shea Weber is injured and out indefinitely. The same goes for Carey Price, but due to personal reasons. Corey Perry, Phillip Danault and the latter’s former linemate Tomas Tatar were lost in the free agency frenzy, and last but not least, we saw former Leaf slayer Jesperi Kotkaniemi accept a signing bonus from Raleigh consisting of $20 USD.
If that was not enough, the last few weeks have seen several important pieces of the new Montreal Canadiens struggle with injuries. For Wednesday’s game, marquee signing Mike Hoffman as well as fellow newcomer Sami Niku were sidelined. The same went for defensive pillar Joel Edmundson and penalty-kill specialist Paul Byron.
The good news was that Cédric Paquette was cleared from his injury and could make his debut as the starting fourth-line centreman. Another positive was that for the first time we would get to see what playoff sensation Cole Caufield and the newly extended Nick Suzuki could do together with a full off-season behind them.
The Habs started the opening game off frenetically, and could have had one goal during the first 10 seconds and two goals within the first minute. Unfortunately, the premier scoring opportunities went to a couple of players who rarely find themselves in the scoring protocol. This effectively meant that Jack Campbell could keep his sheet clean and that Brett Kulak and newcomer David Savard were left denied.
Ben Chiarot got the dubious honor of receiving this season’s first minor penalty around the five-minute mark when he got his stick tangled up in John Tavares’s abdomen. Either Montreal played a very solid two minutes of penalty kill or Toronto just looked lacklustre. Regardless, the game remained scoreless as Chiarot re-entered the fray.
One hundred sixty-nine days ago, the Canadiens released a statement saying that Jonathan Drouin would take a leave of absence due to personal reasons. Nothing further was disclosed at the time, but Drouin later revealed a battle against both anxiety and insomnia. While number 92 was doing his best to recover and find the joy in life, his team went on an improbable run to be three wins away from a championship title.
Last night was Drouin’s first competitive game in half a year, and wouldn’t you know it he got to open the scoring as well. A turnover created the possibility of a two-on-one breakaway for linemates and good pals Drouin and Josh Anderson. Anderson held onto the puck just long enough to create the possibility for a tap-in when he eventually did pass the puck. Seeing the fire in Drouin’s eyes and the smiles between him and his teammates on the bench shortly afterward was singularly worth any paid entrance fee.
It certainly felt like the guests had good control over the events during the opening 10 minutes. Unfortunately, a second penalty, this time on Alexander Romanov, meant an opportunity for the Maple Leafs to tie it up. Pierre Engvall, born and raised in an area of Sweden which hardly has snow and ice even on the grimmest of winter days, took advantage of traffic in front of the net and wristed the puck past Jake Allen and in.
Toronto gradually grew into the game and came out blasting in the second period, not unlike how the Habs looked in the first. If not for a very awake Montreal goaltender, his team could have ended up being down by one or two goals.
The home team would eventually take the lead, but we had to wait until the early stages of the third period before we got there. William Nylander got the puck in stride and was able to charge unattacked toward the net and release a sniping wrister that beat Allen cold.
The Canadiens received a golden chance to get level when Jason Spezza and Mitch Marner were called for back-to-back penalties just 15 seconds apart. With a revamped power play and a record-setting Junior goal-scorer set up in the Ovechkin position wide-left, things could only go one way now, couldn’t they? Well, apparently not. The Leafs were able to kill off the two-man disadvantage without breaking much of a sweat, allowing just one shot on goal in the meantime.
A new Habs power play a few minutes later saw a better offensive effort, with Chris Wideman and Drouin distrubuting the puck around well. However, when the two minutes were up, Montreal had still not managed to break through and score a goal on the man advantage.
With time winding down, and Dominique Ducharme starting to think about possibly using an extra attacker on the ice, the men in black and white decided to put a stick in the wheel for the Montreal coach.
Brendan Gallagher and Morgan Rielly got tangled up near the boards as a result of a late charge by the former against Toronto netminder Jack Campbell. Quickly, the remaining players on the ice decided to join in and defend their respective teammate’s honour. In the end, only one penalty was called, and it went to Anderson.
Somehow Josh Anderson is the only one to get a penalty here. pic.twitter.com/ysqbXeFFJu— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) October 14, 2021
With one man down, Ducharme still decided to break for even and remove Allen for Caufield in search of a late surge, but it was to no avail. Toronto became victorious in the season opener, receiving at least a temporary band aid on the still open wound from this spring with a 2-1 win.
Tonight marks a historic event as the Canadiens will play their first regular-season game on American soil since the March 10, 2020. With the opponents being the Buffalo Sabres, an immediate bounceback for Ducharme’s side should be expected.