The Canadian Press
TORONTO–John Tavares let out a big sigh of relief during last night’s player introductions.
The Toronto Maple Leafs did the same thing after an ugly win.
Auston Matthews scored his second goal of the night at 1:01 of overtime as the Leafs eked out a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in their regular-season opener.
Matthews took a feed from Patrick Marleau off the rush and beat Carey Price upstairs past the blocker to send the crowd at Scotiabank Arena into a frenzy.
“It was a perfect pass,” Matthews said. “‘Patty’ had me there and I was able to just get it over him [Price].”
But for much of the game, it was Montreal that had the upper hand as Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen was forced to make 34 saves, including 15 in the third period, to bail out his teammates on a number of sloppy sequences.
“They kind of outworked us,” Matthews admitted. “A lot we can learn moving forward.”
Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock was happy with the victory but not how his team got there.
“Montreal played with great effort and great structure,” he noted.
“In the end, we won the game but we have to work way harder and play way better than we did tonight.”
Tavares, with his first for Toronto, had the home side’s other goal.
The product of nearby Oakville, Ont. signed a massive seven-year, $77-million (U.S.) contract with the Leafs on July 1, joining the team he grew up cheering for and instantly turned into a Stanley Cup contender.
He received a raucous ovation when his name was announced as the final player to come out of the tunnel before puck drop, and seemed relieved to finally be in a game that mattered after so much hype.
“It was tremendous,” Tavares said of the crowd reaction. “To have that type of welcoming from this fan base and this city is pretty special.”
“I’m sure it’s a big sigh of relief for him to just kind of get the monkey off the back and just go play now,” Matthews said.
“I can’t imagine what he’s gone through the last three, four months and all the hype leading into his first game here.”
Nazem Kadri added two assists for the Leafs, who enter the season with sky-high expectations as fans dream of an end to Toronto’s 51-year Cup drought.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, are loathe to use the word “rebuild” despite the trade of captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights, but showed well in their first game of 2018-19.
“Definitely encouraging, the effort that every single player made,” said Price, who made 23 saves.
“If we keep playing like that with that type of effort, I think we’re going to get rewarded.”
“They came out jumping,” agreed Matthews. “They work hard.”
Artturi Lehkonen and Andrew Shaw scored for Montreal while Max Domi, the son of former Leafs’ tough guy Tie Domi, had two assists in his debut with the Canadiens.
Tied 2-2 in the third, Montreal came close to taking the lead on a power play when Tomas Tatar hit the post.
Domi then had another chance on a bouncing puck that had Andersen desperately flailing in his crease.
While the Leafs were outshot 15-7 in the period, a down-and-out Price, who missed almost half of last season through injury, made an incredible pad stop on Kasperi Kapanen just before the buzzer to end regulation.
“He made a lot of diving saves,” Matthews said. “It looks like it’s going to go in the back of the net, and Carey sticks his leg out or his arm and he makes the save.
“That’s why he’s one of the best goalies.”
Elsewhere in the NHL, Vancouver beat Calgary 5-2, Washington dumped Boston 7-0, and San Jose downed Anaheim 5-2.