a new season. Lightning rush. Full house. historical rivals. One rematch between playoff opponents, one whose unlikely comeback started an extended Stanley Cup chase, another whose collapse doomed them – again – to notoriety.
It all turned out excellent on Wednesday night when the Maple Leafs welcomed the Montreal Canadiens to the inaugural 2021-22 NHL season at Scotiabank Arena. However, this was more than just an early game. It was a coming-out party for the sea of spectators that filled the rink for the first time in 582 days.
Over 18,000 (vaccinated) fans watched the Maple Leafs win 2–1 with the winning goal scored by William Nylander. The last time the rink was so full was on March 10, 2020. Two days later, the spread of COVID-19 brought the team’s play to a halt.
Canadian teams played without spectators or before a minimum crowd. In Canada, hockey is a fall ritual similar to apple picking. After 18 months of anxiety, depression, illness and quarantine, there was much to celebrate.
Actor Will Arnett and Olympic swimmer Penny Oleksiak, with gold medals hanging from their necks, were among the 18,493 revelers. So was the rock band Arkels.
Fans walked the Concourse in various states of the Leafs dress. A sport-worn Austin Matthews helmet was the featured item at a silent auction. The minimum opening bid was $5,000.
In the team store, a rack of game-used Zach Bogosian, Alexander Barbanov, and Zach Hyman sticks was on sale for $150. Nobody plays for Toronto anymore. One of Nylander’s “Willie Styles” sticks is $300. Infant jerseys are $125.
There was cheering and throbbing music and ear-piercing horns. During a break, a heartfelt applause went to a front-line worker named Jonathan Tavares. He is not to be confused with Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. There was bedlam when Pierre Angvaal scored Toronto’s first goal of the season.
The energy in the building right from the warm-up was incredible,” said Toronto goalkeeper Jack Campbell. He intercepted 31 of the 32 shots he faced.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe said: “The fans were excellent from the time I got on the bench” [before the game]. The crowd was engaged from the beginning. They were a factor all the way. “
It was the first of four games between longtime opponents and the 21st time they had met in this calendar year, preseason and playoffs included. They have the longest rivalry in the game. He has faced 19 times in opening competitions, 837 times since 1917.
Toronto escaped near disaster when Montreal’s Brett Kulak and Christian Dvorak missed shots on the wide-open net within 18 seconds of the puck drop. Later, Campbell intercepted a dangerous backhand by Canadiens rookie Cole Cofield.
“[Jack] was a factor,” Nylander said. “It could have been 2-0 or 3-0 Montreal.”
Jonathan Drouin eventually put the visitors ahead with 12:38 in the first period, tapping into a soft pass from Josh Anderson. Engvall tied it on the power play in less than two minutes. Michael Bunting and Rasmus Sandin assisted.
“The first 10 minutes were not good,” Keefe said. “It took us a while to get comfortable.”
The teams fought a goalless fight and played the second 20 minutes evenly. Moving towards half-time, Toronto took a slight advantage in shots at 23-20. Naylander delivered a crisp shot to Montreal goalkeeper Jake Allen in the third minute a little more than a minute later.
“It was sweet,” said Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Hole. “He showed really good patience and he picked up his corner well.”
Back-to-back penalties 18 seconds apart gave the Canadiens a 5-on-3 power play but they failed to score. Campbell was quick in the nets and his teammates played well in front of him. Hole blocked a shot leading to a wide open net.
It was an interesting start to an interesting season for both the teams. Toronto has seven new faces on its roster. There were five in Montreal.
The Maple Leafs were without their star center Matthews. The Canadiens began the campaign without five key players: Shia Webber, Kerry Price, Paul Byrne, Joel Edmondson and Mike Hoffman.
Montreal captain Webber will miss this year due to an ankle injury. Price, one of the game’s most elite goaltenders, has entered the league’s player-assistance program and will be out indefinitely. In his place, Allen, who filled to capacity when Price suffered an injury earlier this year, will be in the nets.
Matthews, who led the NHL last season with 41 goals, is still recovering from off-season wrist surgery. He is unlikely to play the first three games of the Maple Leafs. They play again in Ottawa on Thursday and then return home to face the Senators on Saturday.
Ilya Mikheev, who underwent surgery on Wednesday to repair a broken finger, is out for eight weeks. Had high hopes for him.
The last time the rivals’ results were counted, Montreal overcame a 3–1 series loss and overtook the Maple Leafs in seven games. The Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup Finals before being swept away by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Montreal was the first Canadian team to play for the championship since 2011, when Vancouver lost to the Boston Bruins. It was unexpected and good effort, but was disappointing in the end.
“It’s been with us all summer, but I think we’re better off for that experience,” said Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher. “We all learned what we did well, what we need to do better, and we look forward to showing it this year.”
Maple Leafs feel a lot like this. They won their division but then fell in the playoffs. They have not won the season series since 2004.
“Last year, we focused on setting the standard,” Toronto defender Jake Muzin said after the morning skate. “We did a lot of good things but we missed out,” he said. We have to start on the right foot tonight.”
It was a night to remember for all who participated.
“It was very special,” Nylander said. “It felt like it was a long time ago that we experienced something like this. It’s nice to see the fans back in the building.”