Wednesday night marked the start of the 22-23 season where the Habs enter with little expectations as the prognosticators figure them to be active in the hunt for Connor Bedard more than for a playoff spot.
The team’s initial roster selections shifted in that regard too as many youngsters were featured to kick off the campaign against a team at the other end of the spectrum in the Toronto Maple Leafs. It is therefore with some surprise that the outcome of this first contest was a 4-3 victory as the kids looked quite excellent against one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. However this may look for the team in the long term, one can never really be upset at a win against the Maple Leafs, so for one night, the fan base can reunite in celebrating a first-game win.
As previously mentioned, this team had plenty of new faces. Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield were joined by Josh Anderson on the top line, while Christian Dvorak was flanked by Brendan Gallagher and Juraj Slafkovsky. Kirby Dach anchored a third line featuring Mike Hoffman and Sean Monahan, which left Jake Evans, Rem Pitlick, and Evgenii Dadonov as the fourth.
While the forwards were somewhat familiar, anyone who has not paid attention to the preseason will need a reference guide to figure out who was on the blue line. David Savard and rookie Kaiden Guhle were featured on the first pair. Another rookie in Jordan Harris was joined by waiver claim Johnathan Kovacevic on the second pair while a third rookie, Arber Xhekaj, was joined by Chris Wideman on the third. Jake Allen got the start in goal.
This was the first time since October 7, 1995, that Montreal had three players making their NHL debut in a season opener. If you’re wondering, the three players that night were Saku Koivu, Marko Kiprusoff, and Patrick Labrecque.
The first period started with two minutes of fairly open play that ended when David Kampf took an interference minor. The ensuing advantage looked horrendous and as is often the case, Toronto turned the tide and for a few good scoring chances afterwards.
Momentum was fleeting though as Toronto was penalized a second time, this time for a Michael Bunting hold on Suzuki. Matt Murray had to be solid this time as Caufield was turned aside after an excellent play by Anderson at the offensive blue line to keep the play alive. The Leafs took over a bit after, but the Montreal defenders were not afraid to get physical which kept them to the outside.
The second half of the period started with an offensive faceoff win for the Habs. Unfortunately, that puck skipped over the stick of Savard which sent the Canadiens back to their zone scrambling. This time, the Leafs made them pay as a sweet pass to the slot saw Michael Bunting release a one-timer to open the scoring.
The rest of the period was all Habs which started with a nifty defensive zone play by Slafkovsky which led to him drawing a third advantage for the Habs as Rasmus Sandin took a penalty. 40 seconds into the advantage, Wideman took an interference penalty. Gallagher and Monahan had good chances before Dadonov almost banked one in shorthanded. In the final moments, a sweet feed from Suzuki to Caufield was sent just wide.
The second period started strong for Montreal as a strong defensive zone play by Anderson resulted in a 2-on-1 for his linemates and this time, Suzuki’s feed to Caufield saw the sniper put it home to even the game 33 seconds into the period.
That goal got the Leafs skating and eventually sent Pitlick to the box for hooking at the four-minute mark. Toronto’s power play had the Habs scrambling as Auston Matthews hit the post before Allen had to make a nice glove save for his scrambling defenders.
With 10:54 left to play, Suzuki was soft on coverage which allowed Denis Malgin to put home a replay on a play that looked offside to this writer but wasn’t challenged.
The second half of the game started with scoring chances for Xhekaj and Monahan before a stupid penalty by Alexander Kerfoot in the offensive zone sent the Habs on their fourth power play of the night. They got good zone time which led to some good offensive zone time at 5-on-5 after the advantage too.
This was finally broken up with a pass that sent Malgin all alone who rang his shot off the post. As is usually the case, the puck came right back the other way where the Habs had a 3-on-2. Caufield looked to pass but decided to shoot and it was the right call as he once again tied the game with 4:40 to play.
The Maple Leafs were now scrambling and the Canadiens almost struck again as an excellent forecheck by Slafkovsky landed the puck on Dach’s stick who used all of his six-foot-four wingspan to almost sneak a wrap-around under Murray who somehow stopped it despite being entirely inside his own goal.
With 2:40 to play, Morgan Rielly caught Xhekaj puck-watching as he sprung Kerfoot on a breakaway. Xhekaj hooked Kerfoot which meant a penalty shot where Allen came up huge to bail out his rookie defender.
The third period saw Toronto come out strong and really control the opening five minutes as Allen had to be solid and rely on his young defenders to clear rebounds. Caufield and Monahan then got shots where Murray really appeared to fight the puck which wasn’t the case in the first two periods.
With 14:27 to play, Monahan caught Justin Holl in the face with a high stick during a faceoff scramble. The young defenders showed up in a big way to kill the penalty as Guhle showed some serious poise in clearing the zone early while Xhekaj came up with a huge block in the final moments of the segment.
The final ten minutes kicked off with a Hoffman giveaway in the offensive zone that sent the Leafs to the offensive zone for more zone time. The Leafs continued to control play until Harris took a high sticking penalty with six minutes to play. The Leafs got many chances on that advantage, but Savard came up huge with multiple blocked shots.
The game-winner was thought to have been scored with 2:30 play after yet another good skating shift by Anderson. His forecheck forced the Maple Leafs to cough up the puck in their own zone. Dach took over and controlled the zone while the Habs got in position. He finally sent the puck to Harris who sent it to the net where Monahan found the rebound and buried his first as a Habs.
However, it was not the game-winner. 40 seconds later, Dadonov was so incredibly soft on the puck while entering the offensive zone. The result was so predictable. A 2-on-1 where John Tavares drew in Guhle before dishing to William Nylander who buried to tie the game with 1:50 to play. The goal was almost challenged by coach St. Louis as it was so very close to offside.
The call to not challenge paid off in a big way as the game was sorted prior to overtime. Suzuki and Caufield were sent on a 2-on-1 where Suzuki’s pass actually came back to him, but he shot it wide. Guhle put it back to the front where Muzzin blocked it and then made a soft clearing attempt. Suzuki picked off the puck, found Anderson cross-ice, and he buried the game-winner with 17 seconds left. Game. Set. Match.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Cole Caufield
Caufield started his season right where he left off in April last season. Electric play all night long resulted in two goals, but frankly, it could have easily been four with the looks he got all night long. I think Caufield is even more exciting than P.K. Subban, but it’s exciting to see a player get the crowd buzzing by simply touching the puck. No matter the game results, I want to see this Caufield result all season long.
Stats: 2 goals, +1, 5 shots, 18:18 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Josh Anderson
We know that Anderson’s efforts are inconsistent, but the version seen in this one is why many fans refer to him as a unicorn player with speed, size (that he actually uses!), and skill to boot. Strong physical play in the defensive zone led to a Caufield marker. Strong physical forecheck led to the Dach and Monahan play. And then he was all kinds of sniper on the game-winner with seconds to play. If he played like this more often, there would no debate about his place on this roster.
Stats: 1 goal, +2, 1 shot, 2 hits, 15:36 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Nick Suzuki
Suzuki missed some time and it showed at moments in this game. He was caught flat-footed a few times which killed some good offensive pushes from his line, he looked tired quickly, and he over-skated his check on the Malgin goal. Despite all of this, he’s still so smooth with the puck that he put up a two-point night while repeatedly forcing Toronto defenders back as they respect the skill and the reputation. He’ll get better after a two-assist effort, I think that’s a positive sign.
Stats: 2 assists, +1, 3 shots, 21:24 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Kaiden Guhle
First NHL game? How about you draw Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner… for over 22 minutes. Don’t forget to finish with an even rating and two hits while playing huge minutes on the penalty kill. If this is what the Canadiens get from Guhle all year long, those who criticized the pick a few short years ago will feel mighty stupid, if they don’t already.
Stats: 22:34 T.O.I.