Still, the game showed a vast departure from the disinterested and ill-prepared Canadiens team that started last season with a backbreaking eight losses in it’s first ten games and bottomed out from there.
Ultimately, it became a 3-2 overtime loss because Toronto has the scoring talent to overcome the reality of being outplayed for most of the night.
Claude Julien and his coaching staff have matched improved speed with a high tempo, puck moving, strong forechecking style that had Toronto bottled up for long stretches, especially in the first and third periods.
If one was paying attention there were signs during the middle part of training camp that this version of the Canadiens was going to be a vastly different team than what was season in 2017-2018. But then in the final two pre-season games they appeared to lose their way. All of the good things we saw in those earlier days of training camp came back against Toronto on opening night.
Seven hours before gametime Julien shocked everyone by announcing that two of his veterans, Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner would not be part of the Canadiens opening night lineup.
Alzner had his long 622 game ironman streak on the line. Plekanec was two games away from playing in his 1,000th career game. What Julien did was tell the rest of the team that merit would earn a spot in the lineup and not past history.
All eyes on Jesperi Kotkaniemi and he did disappoint. When he was on the ice the Canadiens spent most of their time in the Toronto end of the ice. Once again he showed his playmaking ability. There were three times when he was able through second effort to salvage broken plays in the Leafs zone.
If it weren’t for the fact that Max Domi picked up primary assists on both Canadiens goals, one might be tempted to call him the Canadiens best forward. Kotkaniemi logged 15:05 including 2:32 on the power play. It was on the power play that he recorded his first career assist. Mostly he was on a line with Joel Armia and Jonathan Drouin.
Neither Domi nor Andrew Shaw had any training camp to speak of yet they had terrific games. Domi missed the last five training camp games with the suspension and Shaw was sidelined the whole camp because of all of those hangover injuries from last year. Domi had those two assists and looked pretty good at centre between Byron and Lehkonen. Shaw, who scored the second goal was on a fourth line that didn’t look like a fourth line with Charles Hudon and Michael Peca. Peca is the one who bumped Plekanec out of the opening night lineup.
THE BACK END –
There are a lot of things to take away from this game above-all, the top-to-bottom play of the Canadiens six defencemen.
Remember, the Canadiens went into this game without Shea Weber and David Schlemko with Alzner the healthy scratch. With one was left it would difficult not to look at prospects with a jaundiced eye especially facing one of the league’s best offences.
As one might expect, Jeff Petry led the way with 23:57 ice time, 3 shots on goal of the nine he attempted, two hits and only one giveaway. He had a slow start but had the puck a lot in the second and third period. Petry played most of his even strength minutes with Victor Mete.
The Mike Reilly/Noah Juulsen pairing was also good. Reilly continues to flourish under the new Claude Julien system of puck movement from the defence.
And Jordie Benn was outstanding. Who would have guessed? Didn’t notice Xavier Ouellet much, which is a good thing.
THE DOWN SIDE
Jonathan Drouin had a terrible night. His lack of attention to detail showed up even more because of the effort being put up by his linemates Kostkaniemi and Armia and the rest of the team.
Drouin was guilty of overhandling the puck which inevitably led to turnovers. His turnover deep in the Toronto zone in overtime led to Auston Matthews game-winning goal.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this stuff before but last year he was forgiven some of it by the fact he was playing out of position. He’s on left wing now. That excuse is gone.
….Carey Price wasn’t overworked but he looked like the goaltender of two years ago, especially on Dermott in the first period, Marlowe and Leivo in the second.
….Phillip Danault held his own in the faceoff circle winning 12 of 24. As expected he was busiest in the defensive zone where he took ten faceoffs.
….Outside of Danault, faceoffs are a problem. Kotkaniemi won 1 of 7; Domi was 38%; Peca was 0-for-4. Overall Danault took 38% of all faceoffs.
….Brendan Gallagher took a total of ten shots in the game, a team-leading five on goal. Armia led the Canadiens in hits with five.
The Canadiens get another early season test on Saturday night in Pittsburgh. Then it’s home with a five day layoff before they host the LA Kings in their opener a week tomorrow.