Why snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter when you can simply watch Toronto Maple Leafs hockey?
Two Leaf comebacks from two goals down, five goals between the two teams in the third period alone, an early fight (Ryan Reaves vs. Arber Xhekaj), a critical goal reversal after a coach’s challenge, an Auston Matthews hat trick, three-on-three OT… and unfortunately, a shootout to ultimately decide the extra point. This game was as sloppy as it gets and a nightmare for coaches and goalies alike, but certainly, it made for great entertainment in game one.
Normally, we’d sprinkle in gifs of the goals and major plays, but this game was so jam-packed with a bit of everything, it’s best to review the full highlight package.
Your game in 10:
1. After a collection of 50-50 shifts played at an eager pace to start the game, disaster struck early for TJ Brodie, who looked like his knees melted at the offensive blue line before Jake Evans’ breakaway goal just three minutes into the game. Watching it back closely, I think Evans’ stick blade applied a deflection on Noah Gregor‘s pass back to the point, which scrambled Brodie’s feet on the play.
Brodie later deflected a power-play goal into his own net in the third period in addition to a few sluggish battles where he got caught on the wrong side of the puck. A black cloud has seemingly been following him around since the last playoffs on the ice, and with his off-ice circumstances, it’s been a really tough go for him personally. Hopefully, it’s nowhere but up from here. The Leafs are obviously really going to need his game to stabilize sooner rather than later.
2. Credit to Ryan Reaves for a hell of a first-period shift. He threw two hard, clean hits, with the second one drawing a fight and an instigator penalty, livening the crowd up after a tough start and sending the Leafs to the power play.
Especially when it’s early in the game/season, the skilled guys are still finding their rhythm, and the ice is seemingly not great (lots of bobbles and stumbles), momentum can’t always come from sustained puck possession or scoring plays. Sometimes it takes hearing the boards rattle and the crowd come to life. That’s been a rare sight/sound early in Leafs games for many years now.
Reaves was heavy-handed on one chip-out leading to an icing call, but otherwise, he was as simple, effective, and committed to his role as the Leafs could’ve asked. He even fired a nice pass to the weakside trailer at one point for a scoring chance.
3. Jake McCabe sure is fond of an aggressive pinch. On the 2-0 Habs goal, he won the race but lost the puck up the wall, and William Nylander — as the covering forward — had to retreat there while recognizing the developing danger as opposed to taking an ambitious stab at a 50-50 puck (to be generous). The Leafs were suddenly in a 2-0 hole after conceding early for the second consecutive period, this time on a 3v1 with all three forwards plus McCabe caught up ice.
It seemingly went from bad to worse after a Cole Caufield power-play goal, but a successful offside challenge saved the Leafs from a 3-0 hole. Sheldon Keefe’s staff (Jordan Bean and Sam Kim in the video room) has been on point with the coach’s challenges over recent years, with only one lost challenge in their last 16 attempts — and the loss was Keefe knowingly throwing up a hail mary in a game that was turning into a blowout. This seemed like the turning point of the game, but turns out there were many more to come.
4. Shortly after the Leafs got the successful challenge and the kill, Noah Gregor opened the team’s scoring account for 2023-24 after a good heads-up play from John Klingberg to spot the open ice on the weak side and send him on a rush down the wing. It should’ve been stopped — as was the case for several Leaf goals — but it was a quick low release off of the far post and in that handcuffed Jake Allen.
Gregor was one of the Leafs’ best skaters through the opening stages of the game, pushing the pace and firing some threatening shots on goal (four in total on the night). His speed and shot stand out and were no doubt part of why the Leafs felt comfortable moving on from Sam Lafferty’s $1.15 million cap hit while pocketing the $375k in cap savings between Lafferty and Gregor’s contracts (whether they really could’ve used both players and if Minten actually sticks is a debate to be settled over time, but Gregor’s skill set definitely contributed to their comfort in moving out Lafferty).
With how he can skate, handle the puck, shoot the puck, and his direct game, Gregor looks capable of occasionally moving up the lineup and holding his own/providing a spark when the Leafs are flat. All that aside, this is a fourth line that’s gaining some positive momentum early in the year.
5. The Leafs power play was making life hard on itself by losing all five faceoffs in the second period (and winning just one of seven to that point in the game), but they broke through in a big way on consecutive power plays to make it 3-2 Toronto. First, it was a finish at the back post by Auston Matthews after a John Tavares redirect in the slot and then a one-timer through Allen courtesy of William Nylander.
On the Nylander goal, John Klingberg, who had a good first night in Toronto while leading the defense in ice time (24:38), did a good job of shifting the PKers and goalie a little before putting it right in the money spot for Nylander’s one-timer. Klingberg also had a critical keep-in at the line prior to the 5-5 goal, picked up two assists (one primary), fired four shot attempts (two on goal), and moved it well both on the PP and at five-on-five. A positive start for #3 despite limited preseason action.
6. In the third period, after a fourth-line goal and some power-play success got the Leafs back on top, it looked like the top line was going to take this game over the finish line. It was a slow start to the game from the first unit, but they were starting to really connect and roll as the game wore on, completing small-area plays down low in the offensive zone and buzzing around the Habs net. Tyler Bertuzzi easily could’ve scored a couple.
There was a great give-and-go in tight in the low slot between Auston Matthews and Bertuzzi that nearly went in, and then an extra jab at the goalie after the whistle by Bertuzzi created some chaos that resulted in a Habs power play. That preceded the bounce off Brodie’s stick that looped over Ilya Samsonov for the tying goal by Cole Caufield. Still love the gumption from Bertuzzi there, penalty be damned.
7. Max Domi‘s turnover prior to the 4-3 Montreal goal was brutal. There was a lot of sloppiness in this game (the nature of a season opener, plus the choppy ice), but this was something else — just an inexcusable decision. On that shift, the Leafs had given up a grade-A chance after a turnover and failed to clear once more after that. Getting cute with a bounce-pass-to-yourself attempt on the d-zone half wall, leading to a turnover and a goal against, is take-a-seat-on-the-bench worthy.
Just 11 minutes and change in ice time for Domi tonight.
8. The 5-3 goal was when Ilya Samsonov‘s play was officially becoming a concern in the game. It was an ugly whiff by Timothy Liljegren initially, and it’s always tough to blame goalies when a defenseman hands it over for a clear-cut chance against. But a goalie can make big saves, and Samsonov overplayed it. Morgan Rielly is closing down any cut across the net, and if Samsonov stays calm, in position, and doesn’t give up his near post, Jesse Ylonen has a much tougher finish to make there.
Credit to Samsonov for rebounding in the OT and shootout, but he’ll need to be better than this going forward. I am not going to nitpick the goals more than I have — there was a breakaway, an odd-man rush, and multiple tough deflections in there — but more than anything, he just didn’t seem fully settled in the crease tonight.
9. Highly successful first night behind the bench for the guy in charge of the man-advantage situations (both the power play — 2 for 4 — and 6-on-5 with two late goals to tie it), Guy Boucher. Obviously, it may look different if Jake Allen doesn’t give up the short-side howler to Auston Matthews to make it 5-4 with the early goalie pull (4:45 left), but the amount of preparation for the 6-on-5 game state in training camp/preseason showed with how well-drilled/organized the team was when getting to their spots on the ice following the two faceoff wins preceding the goals.
10. Mixed night for the third line of Knies – Minten – Jarnkrok, which was the team’s worst in the run of play (out-chanced 5-1, outshot 5-2 at five on five). Like the rest of the team, it improved in the second half of the game, but unsurprisingly, there were some moments where you could tell the pace and intensity of the physical battles caught Fraser Minten by surprise. Matthew Knies also fought the puck a little (and lost his footing a fair amount) throughout the night.
While the big guns caught their breath, the coaching staff needed to spot in a third- or fourth-line shift during the late push to tie it from two goals down in the final five minutes. During that time, this third line had a breakdown that led to Nick Suzuki just missing an open net to all but end the game.
It was always going to be an eye-opener for Minten to start the regular season, and now we’ll see how quickly he adjusts to the regular-season pace and intensity over the next week or two. Typically, you’d want to insulate two rookies (Knies and Minten) on separate lines as opposed to rolling them together, especially when one is playing center.