MONTREAL – Randy Carlyle heard the laughter and impressed upon his team the need to erase it.
"When you're the butt of jokes in the hockey world it's not fun and we take that very serious," said Carlyle. "We're trying to earn respect back for the organization."
He and the Leafs took a "baby-step" in that direction on Saturday evening, outmuscling the Canadiens for a 2-1 season-opening win at the Bell Centre. Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak sprinkled in the offence and Ben Scrivens minded matters in goal in what proved to be a generally sound road performance.
"I think we did a lot of good things tonight," said Mike Komisarek, who logged more than 16 minutes on his 31st birthday. "But still, it's a baby step. There's still a lot of mistakes that we need to correct and fix. But we're heading in the right direction."
From day one of a hasty six-day training camp, Carlyle stressed sturdier team defence and increased, all-around determination as pre-requisites in the club's push to end a seven-year playoff absence, trademarks that were on display at various points in Montreal.
For most of the opening two periods, the Leafs blocked shots mindfully and boxed the Habs out effectively in the defensive zone. Pucks from the outside were all that Scrivens had to contend with on a suitably peaceful night. Flurries and chaos marked the final frame as Montreal charged back, but the youthful road squad managed to hold serve. Long an inconsistent force, special teams also played a prominent role in the victory; the Toronto power-play scored both goals while the penalty kill shut the door on four of five opportunities. "You saw a lot of little things tonight," said Dion Phaneuf, who led the Leafs with nearly 27 minutes of ice. "You saw a lot of puck battles, you saw a lot of blocked shots, you saw some big saves from Ben when we needed them and that's the difference between winning tight games like this and not winning them."
"You definitely don't like to be looked upon as a team that's finishing in the bottom quarter of the league or what not," he continued. "Our focus is to change that."
1. Entirely unique circumstances surrounded the NHL debuts of Mike Kostka and Leo Komarov, both of whom managed to make an impact in the opener. Playing in his first NHL game at the seasoned age of 27, Kostka traveled a long road in the American Hockey League to arrive at this point, nearly heading to Germany at the age of 24. The Etobicoke, Ont. native played on a top pairing with Phaneuf, logging 23 minutes and adding his first NHL point, an assist on the Kadri goal. "I thought [Kostka] was really solid out there," said Phaneuf. "He moves the puck well, he's vocal and he's a smart, smart player." Komarov meanwhile, a 2006 draft pick of the John Ferguson Jr. regime, finally made his debut after building a solid resume in the KHL which included a championship last season. "He's a workhorse that guy," said Kadri of the Estonian-born winger. "It seems like he just never stops skating, never stops working." Komarov logged nearly 13 minutes, provided a screen on the Kadri goal, aided on the penalty kill and was a force physically.
2. Building off the momentum of a strong training camp, Kadri was a pesky force in limited action. The 22-year-old scored a goal, drew a penalty, took a penalty and was generally a nuisance for the Canadiens when he took to the ice. "That's what I've wanted this whole time, to come in here and make an impact and help this team win," said Kadri prior to the game. Details have been the point of emphasis for the London, Ont. native, efforts that showed on Saturday. "He's got such great skill," said Phaneuf, "but I think it's more of the little things; the puck battles that he's winning, using his body to protect the puck, and just really playing a hard game. And he's got the skill to back that up." One detail needing improvement: the faceoff circle; Kadri lost four of six draws.
3. Aside from the obvious need for stability in goal, the Leafs must run forcefully with the defence-first mindset Carlyle is striving to implement. Saturday's effort was a step in that direction. "Defensively, we want to be outnumbering them in the defensive zone," said Komisarek, "taking away their time and space, jumping on loose pucks, outnumbering in all situations. I think we did that for a majority of the night."
"I think it's our responsibility as a coaching staff to put a defensive system in place that's going to protect … any goaltender," said Carlyle on Saturday morning, responding to questions on the innuendo surrounding Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo. "You can't give up quality chances in those critical areas to have success in the NHL." Brian Gionta managed the only Montreal goal, subverting Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson in front on a Canadiens powerplay.
4. Rarely tested after two periods, but busier in the third, Scrivens gave a solid, if wobbly in moments, performance as the opening night starter. Making just his 13th career NHL start, the 26-year-old said nerves did not prove challenging. "No more than usual," he said. "You just try and focus, get that first save underneath your belt and go from there." Early in the opening frame, Alex Galchenyuk fired a bomb off the rush, a puck stopped uncomfortably off the shoulder of Scrivens. To his credit though, Scrivens allowed just the single goal and none of the eye-opening markers that have caused so much consternation in the Toronto crease. He is deserving of the next start for a generally stable performance.
5. While he kept his plans for the unit close to the vest at the morning skate, Carlyle did in fact, utilize the trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur as his shutdown unit against Montreal. The group was quiet offensively, but effective in slowing the Canadiens top line of David Desharnais, Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty. Kulemin led all Leaf forwards with nearly 21 minutes of action, Grabovski and MacArthur were both in the neighbourhood of 18 minutes.
Quote of the Night
"I don't think it's my team, it's our team. The word 'my' or 'I' is not in this team's vocabulary. What we've tried to do is we've tried to create an atmosphere that we can be proud of and we're trying to earn respect back for the organization. We've taken that upon ourselves. Every guy in there has the same mandate. And if you don't want to do that you're not going to be part of our group."-Randy Carlyle
Quote of the Night II
"When you're the butt of jokes in the hockey world it's not fun and we take that very serious."- Carlyle
Leo Komarov led the Leafs with eight hits in his NHL debut.
22:59 – Mike Kostka in his NHL debut.
Under the Radar
Jay McClement, logging nearly 14 minutes in a variety of roles, most notably on the penalty kill. Like the Leafs as a whole (38%), McClement struggled in the faceoff circle, losing six of nine draws.
Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre in the Leafs home opener.