TORONTO — When he sat down for his Zoom postgame media conference, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joe Thornton was all smiles, even cutting off the first question to provide delightful commentary.
“Wasn’t that fun?” he asked.
Indeed it was, albeit messy.
The Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in overtime in their season opener at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. Still, they left a lot of video footage that head coach Sheldon Keefe will undoubtedly use as examples of what not to do going forward.
The first half of the game saw Toronto come out a bit slow. They committed several unforced errors and bad line changes, including one by newcomer Jimmy Vesey that resulted in a bench minor and Montreal’s opening goal of the game on the ensuing power play.
In any other season, opening-night issues for the Maple Leafs would sound an alarm.
But this is a season like no other.
“It was our first game of the season playing at that tempo and we had a pretty emotional win,” Maple Leafs head coach Keefe said. “I’m not going to get too nitpicky. We’ll get better every day.”
The Maple Leafs haven’t played a competitive game since August. No matter how well Toronto prepared over the last 10 days of training camp, opening night against an improved Canadiens squad was always a crapshoot.
Once the Maple Leafs got up to speed, their skill took over and the veterans provided the support.
With Toronto, down 3-1, Wayne Simmonds engaged in a fight with Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot at 9:38 of the second period.
“I thought the boys needed a bit of a spark,” Simmonds said. “I know my role on this team.”
Toronto did play better following the fight. But it’s a tough sell to pin that as the difference. A 5-on-3 power-play for Toronto late in the second period ultimately saw Keefe deploy his most skilled forwards (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander) as a single unit. Nylander scored his second of the game and Tavares scored 1:21 later to tie the game 3-3 at 19:21.
Although Montreal took the lead back with the second of Josh Anderson’s two goals at 1:03 of the third period, Vesey was able to atone for his previous error with his first goal of the season at 10:33 that tied the game 4-4.
Both teams went end-to-end in the overtime session before Morgan Rielly scored the winner for Toronto at 3:24.
“I thought we chased the game a little bit, but I thought we showed great character,” Simmonds said. “We kept coming back and we made it tough on them.”
It’s comments from players like Thornton and Simmonds that stand out. Last season, the Maple Leafs were often criticized for what appeared to be a lack of interest in the game for prolonged stretches. Thornton’s genuine enthusiasm and Simmonds’ fight gesture, while small, planted the seeds for a change.
A change of attitude.
“With the presence of them in the locker room and on the ice has been key for us,” Nylander said of Thornton and Simmonds. “We have a lot to learn from those guys.”
Thornton and Simmonds, both from Ontario, signed with Toronto on one-year deals in October. Their first game with the club wasn’t in front of fans in attendance. Although the game was entertaining, looking out into the stands and seeing empty seats with some tarp was a sobering reminder of the world’s current state.
“In a home opener like this you really felt the no fans,” Keefe said. “Particularly with your new guys, it’s an opportunity for them to connect the fans and for the fans to recognize them.”
“With guys like Joe and Simmer coming back here to Toronto, Ontario, you miss out on those moments. We miss our fans.”
As for Simmonds’ role, it also expanded later in the game to preserve the 41-year-old Thornton. Late in the third period, the veterans were part of a shift of strategy for Keefe. Thornton was subbed off the top line with Matthews and Marner and replaced with Zack Hyman. At the same time, Simmonds moved up from the fourth line to fill Hyman’s spot on the third line with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev.
Thornton had 17:30 of ice time.
One game is in the books. The veterans have served their purpose for the night.
Let’s see where it goes.
NOTES: Zack Bogosian got off to a rough debut with the Maple Leafs. He took two of the team’s first three penalties, the latter resulting in Tomas Tatar’s goal that made it 3-1 Montreal. He was Toronto’s worst defenceman from a possession standpoint with a 30 percent Corsi in 5-on-5 situations… Frederik Andersen picked up the win for Toronto, but looked shaky in the net at some points. He made 28 saves on 32 shots. Matthews has points in all five season openers he has played in the NHL (nine goals, three assists).