TORONTO — The Maple Leafs didn’t lack for drama in their 2020-21 regular season opener on Wednesday, falling behind the Montreal Canadiens early only to storm back and force a thrilling overtime where Morgan Rielly’s winner put Toronto over their North Division rivals, 5-4.
It was a victory ladened with the kind of teachable moments head coach Sheldon Keefe usually loves dissecting, but in the immediate aftermath at least, all those lessons could wait.
“We just had a pretty emotional comeback win here for our first game,” a sombre-looking Keefe told reporters on a Zoom call. “So I'm not going to get too nitpicky. We’ll get better every day.”
In a pandemic-shortened 56-game season, Toronto won’t have much time to debrief between contests as it is. And there’s still nine more meetings against the Habs to come, giving the Leafs plenty of opportunity to correct their wrongs from their first go-round.
Wednesday’s matchup started off on shaky footing for the home team, where a quick penalty to newcomer Zach Bogosian and a sloppy bench minor for too many men put Toronto on its heels and opened the door for Nick Suzuki to capitalize on Montreal’s second power play try to take a 1-0 lead.
William Nylander pushed back with some theatrics of his own, snaking a one-timer from the blueline top-shelf on Carey Price to even the score late in the first.
It should have been smooth sailing for Toronto into the dressing room after that, but with 22.6 seconds remaining in the first, Josh Anderson rolled in to put a puck through Andersen and send the Leafs dejectedly into period two down 2-1.
It was more of the same there, with Bogosian back in the box and the Leafs giving up two breakaway chances on the ensuing Canadiens’ power play, the second of which Tomas Tatar used to put Montreal up 3-1.
By that point, Wayne Simmonds had seen enough, and dropped the gloves with Ben Chiarot to force some life into his lagging teammates. And according to them, it worked like a charm.
“That was a turning point in the game for sure,” said Nylander. “I think we were a little soft and slow in the beginning and after that we got fired up and got going which was huge.”
“It pretty much changed the whole game,” added Joe Thornton who, like Simmonds, was making his Leafs debut. “After that all went down, it got the guys’ attention on the bench and we really went up from there.”
Also helping Toronto’s cause was getting some power play time of their own. Down 3-1 after Simmonds’ fight, Nylander came calling on the man advantage with another terrific shot high over Price to narrow Toronto’s deficit to one.
Then, on an ensuing 5-on-3 power play, Mitch Marner hit John Tavares with a pass down low and Toronto’s captain tipped it home to tie the score 3-3 headed into the third.
The Leafs ended the night 2-for-4 with the extra man, while Montreal was 2-for-3.
“I felt really good and I thought the boys needed a little bit of a spark there,” Simmonds said of his contributions. “I know my role on this team. I'm happy I could help turn the tide for our team.”
And yet, it was just over a minute into the final frame that Anderson put Montreal back on top with his second of the game, pushing past Tavares and slipping a puck between Andersen’s legs. Toronto’s netminder made 28 saves on 32 shots by the end, for an. 875 save percentage.
Anderson would continue causing fits for the Leafs, nearly connecting with Suzuki on another score after Suzuki undressed Rielly to charge at Toronto’s net.
Once more, Nylander had to help bail his team out, hitting Jimmy Vesey with a pass from below the goal line that Vesey buried behind Price to send the game into overtime.
Nylander finished the game tied with Tavares for the team-lead in points (3) with two goals and an assist. And it was Tavares who would have a big moment himself in the extra frame, when he teed up Rielly’s game-winner with a terrific pass.
“Johnny made a great play to me and all I did was put it in, so I didn't really do much,” Rielly said. “I think that he played great all night and in those situations he’s just a great disher and he made my job easy."
Now with one win under their belt, the Leafs will turn their attention towards improving before their next tilts, a back-to-back set against Ottawa this weekend. With plenty of action awaiting them against all six divisional opponents, there’s little time to dwell, good or bad, on what transpired Wednesday night.
“That's kind of the way the year is going to go,” Rielly said. “I think it'll be entertaining to watch and to be a part of. We’re just very grateful to be playing hockey right now and I think we're going to try to have the most fun with it we can.”