The Maple Leafs look to open the season on the right foot in Montreal against a rebuilding Canadiens team to kick off their 2022-23 regular season (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet). 

Starting the regular season on the right foot has been something the Leafs have consistently been able to do in the Matthews era. Since Matthews was drafted, the Leafs have gone 5-0-1 in season openers, including five wins in a row since Matthews’ historic four-goal debut game in Ottawa that ended in an overtime loss. The latest two of those season-opening wins came against the Canadiens, who the Leafs will once again open their new campaign against tonight.

This Montreal team is very different from the one Toronto opened against last season. A lot of the old guard in Montreal has been shipped out, and the keys to the city have been handed to the young guns while the Habs continue to rebuild.

This shift was symbolized by the naming of Nick Suzuki as the team’s captain at just 23 years old, making him the youngest captain in Canadiens history. Surrounding Suzuki upfront is a youthful crew featuring the likes of Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach, and the first overall pick, Juraj Slafkovski. The kids are insulated by a cast of veterans that includes Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, and Sean Monahan. It’s not a win-now roster, but the hope in Montreal is that the kids can develop into a core that management can build around going forward. 

As for the Canadiens’ blue line, there should be ample opportunity for the Leafs‘ high-octane offense to exploit mismatches against a defense that is very light on NHL experience outside of David Savard, with veterans Joel Edmundson and Michael Matheson currently out due to injury:

Backstopping this Montreal team is goaltender Jake Allen, who is entering his third season in Montreal. In his previous two seasons as a Hab, he has provided some reasonably consistent albeit average play, posting a .907 SV% in 2020-21 and a .905 last season. He’s no world-beater, but Montreal at least knows what to expect from him between the pipes. For a team built on a lot of youth and unknowns, they opted to pay up to the tune of a two-year, $3.85 million AAV contract extension for a known commodity in net.

A known commodity in goal would be a welcome development on the Leafs‘ side with their new tandem, which has a mix of good pedigree and promising talent but not much to bank on in terms of recent results or above .900 seasons. Matt Murray will be in net against Montreal on Wednesday, with hopes to carry over his strong play from the preseason. 

In front of him, the Leafs enter the season relatively healthy after a number of injury-related absences in camp and preseason. John Tavares told the media he was good to go after it was initially feared he would miss the first week or two of the season with an oblique strain. Pierre Engvall was back before the end of the preseason after missing the start of camp with a foot injury (the same goes for Jake Muzzin after a back issue). However, Timothy Liljegren will not be ready to go and will miss some time, with a timeline for a return still a few weeks away. 

With Liljegren out of the lineup, it punts any difficult decisions regarding the back end down the road. Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie will reunite as the top pair, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl will reunite on the second pair while hoping for a return to their 2020-21 results rather than their 2021-22 results, and Mark Giordano will play with Rasmus Sandin (starting on his offside) on the third pair. 

Up front, Toronto will keep its top line from the playoffs intact as Auston Matthews gears up to make another run at 60 goals, Mitch Marner tries to eclipse the 100-point plateau for the first time in his career, and Michael Bunting enters a big contract season for the late-blooming 27-year-old former 2021-22 Calder candidate. The second line features the duo of John Tavares and William Nylander with a new linemate in preseason standout Denis Malgin. Alex Kerfoot will shift back to center the third line between Pierre Engvall and newcomer Calle Järnkrok. Finally, the fourth line will feature a new identity as a pure defensive/checking line consisting of Zach Aston-Reece, David Kämpf, and Nicolas Aubé-Kubel. Expect a four-line approach from Sheldon Keefe tonight as this Leafs lineup doesn’t have any line in need of sheltering on the road against this Habs team.

Ultimately, as has been the case for several years now, the Leafs really can’t prove anything until the playoffs. However, they can help themselves out by having another great regular season and competing for a division title. That quest starts the same way it did last year, this time at a different venue: Leafs vs. Habs at the Bell Centre.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the type of challenge he is anticipating against the Habs in their home opener at the Bell Centre:

One that has lots of energy, lots of passion, and will feed off the crowd. It will be similar to the types of games we played here last season after Marty St. Louis came in and made changes. It is a youthful group that has lots of energy. It is a deep forward group that is going to look to capitalize on mistakes, play in transition, and that can score. It is one we are ready for and we have talked about.

Keefe on the opportunity to exploit the inexperience of the Habs’ defense:

Regardless of the opponent, we want to stress the other team’s defense and goaltender as much as we can and spend as much time as we can on the other half of the ice. We have four lines we think we can roll consistently. It should be relentless in nature. We expect to see that today.

We have a team that is going to look to transition really quickly and go the other way, so we have to be responsible with all of that. No matter who we are playing every night, our job is to go out and stress the opponents’ defenders.

Keefe on improving the team’s record against non-playoff teams in order to build on last season’s point total in the standings:

Because we played well against so many of the top teams in the league, we were in a really good position where had we fared better against some of the teams that didn’t make it, it could have made a significant difference in where we finished.

Despite the fact that we set a franchise record in points, we were in a good spot going into the playoffs, but it could’ve been better. It speaks to dealing with every single day and being prepared no matter who the opponent is or where we are at. Let’s get that started tonight.

Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis on the decision not to use first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky on the power play in the first regular-season game:

I think he has to watch a little bit and focus on his five-on-five game. I think he can learn a lot from watching. Do I expect Slaf to be a power-play guy? Absolutely. He is just not today.

St. Louis on Nick Suzuki playing his first game as captain at the Bell Centre:

It is going to be very special for Nick but also special for a lot of guys. There are a lot of new players and a lot of young guys making the team. The energy in the building — you can’t replicate that. It is something special. We are going to have to manage our start and the excitement and the energy of the building.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #91 John Tavares – #62 Denis Malgin
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kampf – #96 Nicolas Aubé-Kubel

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#55 Mark Giordano – #38 Rasmus Sandin

Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#35 Ilya Samsonov

Injured: Timothy Liljegren

Montreal Canadiens Projected Lines

#22 Cole Caufield – #14 Nick Suzuki – #17 Josh Anderson
#91 Sean Monahan – #77 Kirby Dach – #68 Mike Hoffman
#20 Juraj Slafkovsky – #28 Christian Dvorak – #11 Brendan Gallagher
#32 Rem Pitlick – #71 Jake Evans – #63 Evgenii Dadonov

#21 Kaiden Guhle – #58 David Savard
#72 Arber Xhekaj – #6 Chris Wideman
#54 Jordan Harris – #26 Johnathan Kovacevic

Starter: #34 Jake Allen
#35 Samuel Montembeault

Injured: Jonathan Drouin, Joel Edmundson, Michael Matheson, Joel Armia, Carey Price, Paul Byron