TORONTO – The Maple Leafs spent a large chunk of the off-season remaking the edges of their roster.
Grit and veteran leadership were added to a talented group desperate to change the narrative of past playoff failures.
Many of those new elements were on full display Wednesday night before Toronto’s longest-serving player ensured his team raised the curtain on the NHL’s abbreviated 56-game schedule in style.
Morgan Rielly scored at 3:24 of overtime as the Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 inside a fan-less Scotiabank Arena because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The defenceman took a feed from Toronto captain John Tavares on a 2-on-1 and beat Montreal goalie Carey Price to end a chaotic extra period where each team had glorious chances to grab the bonus point.
“Those OTs, it really comes down to breaks,” Rielly said. “They had a breakaway moments prior to that, that was probably my fault.
“You win some, you lose some.”
On a normal opening night, fans of the Original Six rivals would have descended on downtown Toronto, duelling chants echoing around the building instead of the piped-in crowd noise.
This season will indeed be like no other. But at least hockey was back.
“We’re just grateful to be playing,” said Rielly, now in his eighth season with the Leafs. “We’re going to have the most fun with it we can.”
William Nylander scored twice and added an assist for Toronto, while Tavares had a goal and two assists. Jimmy Vesey chipped in with his first goal for Toronto, which got 28 saves from Frederik Andersen.
The Leafs credited bruising newcomer Wayne Simmonds, who also made his debut along with Joe Thornton, T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian, with sparking the bench when he fought Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot down 3-1 midway through the second period.
“That was a turning point,” Nylander said. “He got the boys going, fired up. We were a little soft and slow in the beginning.”
Josh Anderson replied with two goals in his first game for Montreal, while Nick Suzuki, with a goal and an assist, and Tomas Tatar provided the rest of the offence for the visitors. Jonathan Drouin and Jeff Petry each added two assists.
“To start the season off in Toronto is pretty special,” said Anderson, who grew up in nearby Burlington, Ont. “We wanted to get the two points, but it’s a long year.”
Price made 29 stops in the first of 10 meetings between the clubs in 2021.
“Not too excited, they’re hard games,” Rielly said with a grin when asked if he was looking forward to nine more contests against Montreal. “We’re going to play hard. I would expect the same out of them.
“It’ll be entertaining to watch, to be a part of.”
After the Leafs erased a two-goal deficit late in the second, Anderson registered his second of the night 1:03 into the third by cutting around Tavares and firing a shot that beat the Leafs netminder under his right arm to make it 4-3.
Toronto’s Andersen then denied Montreal’s Anderson of his first-career hat trick on the doorstep a few minutes later.
One of the Leafs’ lesser-known additions, Vesey took advantage of a fortuitous bounce with 10:33 left in regulation when Drouin’s clearing attempt hit an official. Nylander jumped on the loose puck and quickly fed the winger in front.
Auston Matthews, who had scored in his four previous openers, followed that up by ripping a shot off the post behind the Montreal goalie that stayed to set the stage for overtime.
“Wasn’t that fun?” Thornton asked. “The boys were down early, but we managed to come back, and what a great finish by (Rielly).
“The 40-plus players and coaches really enjoyed being out there again.”
Toronto, Montreal and Canada’s five other NHL franchises are playing in the one-season-only North Division necessitated by border regulations related to non-essential travel.
Hockey returned, but it didn’t look like any regular-season opener in history with the pandemic looming large.
The teams hit the ice in front of more than 19,000 empty seats – Canadian fans, and those in the majority NHL cities, aren’t allowed into arenas at least to start – tarps mostly adorned with corporate sponsors covered the first six rows, and coaches wore league-mandated mask behind the benches.
But if you closed your eyes, at times it felt like a normal game night.
Music blared, the public address announcer went over the usual safety precautions for spectators, and Leafs winger Mitch Marner even flipped a puck into the stands at the conclusion of warmups as if there were fans clamouring for a souvenir.
The 48th Highlanders, who have performed at every Toronto home opener since Maple Leaf Gardens was completed in 1931, kept the tradition alive – albeit virtually.
Front-line workers, including doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and teachers, introduced Toronto’s starting lineup, anthem singer Martina Ortiz Luis performed “O Canada” from the empty stands instead of ice level, and that artificial crowd noise contributed to the atmosphere once the action got underway.
“Once the game starts, you’re caught up in it,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It just feels like hockey.”
Both teams took part in the league’s summer restart after the coronavirus forced the NHL to suspend the 2019-20 schedule back in March, but exited the Toronto bubble with vastly different experiences and feelings.
The Leafs came in with high hopes only to be knocked out by Columbus in the five-game qualifiers, while the Canadiens – handed a lifeline as the 24th of 24 teams included in the format – upset Pittsburgh before going toe-to-toe with Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
Each roster underwent significant off-season change, with Toronto looking to alter its culture, and Montreal keen to make a push up the standings.
The Leafs added Thornton – the 41-year-old is in his 23rd NHL season – and Simmonds up front, as well as Brodie and Bogosian on the back end. The Canadiens’ new faces include Anderson and Tyler Toffoli, defenceman Joel Edmundson and backup goalie Jake Allen.
Montreal opened Wednesday’s scoring at 12:49 of the first on the power play when Suzuki buried a shot from a tight angle before Nylander replied 3:07 later.
The Canadiens retook the lead late in the period when Anderson, acquired from Columbus in the Max Domi trade, opened his account from the slot.
Montreal went back on the man advantage in the second, and after Andersen stopped Drouin in all alone, Tatar made no mistake on another breakaway at 7:20.
The tough-as-nails Simmonds then dropped the gloves with Chiarot later in the period, scoring a victory in his first fight with his hometown club.
“The boys needed a little bit of a spark,” Simmonds said. “I know my roll.”
The Leafs made it 3-2 with two minutes left in the period on a power play when Nylander roofed another shot on Price.
Toronto then got a two-man advantage, and Marner fed Tavares in front to tie things with 38.7 seconds remaining.
“We miss our fans in such a fun, back-and-forth type of game like this,” Keefe said. “It would have been nice to have them here, but we’re going to have to get used to this.
“This is what we’ve got and hopefully we’re able to entertain people at home.”