If Dominique Ducharme had recorded this game on a white board before the start, it would have turned out that way – a 2-1 victory for him Montreal Canadiensin all three zones and in almost every situation in the Scotiabank Arena in this opening game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Despite losing 14 of the last 21 games, including the last five of the regular season, Ducharme said earlier Thursday that he felt the Canadians were ready to face the North Division champions with a week of training leading up to this one Series had prepared them and that he was sure they would maintain their style.
“We are very confident to get into the series,” said Ducharme. “We expect our four lines to use their strengths and contribute to them. On the defensive side, I think our defenders will be difficult to face. We’ll start like this. “
That’s how the Canadiens ended up helping them rock the Maple Leafs on their heels after they had all their arms on the team.
This had a bit of everything to offer. Both teams scored three goals, 66 shots, 107 attempts and 81 hits. Every square centimeter of the ice was hotly contested, every race was close and the error rate was as low as it gets. It had everything you would like to see in a playoff game, but also one thing you would not want to see in any game.
It was just over halfway through the first period when Ben Chiarot stepped into the neutral zone and met Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. Tavares was sent onto the ice and ran towards Canadian striker Corey Perry, who jumped to get out of the way and caught Tavares’ head in his knee, cutting him and knocking him unconscious.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Perry said afterwards. “I tried to jump. I know Johnny pretty well and I just hope he’s fine. “
There wasn’t a person in the building, or anyone watching the game anywhere, who wasn’t grateful that Tavares raised his thumb to signal that he was fine when he was stretched from the ice and just before moving to a nearby one was brought to hospital in Toronto. The scene that followed immediately after the collision, when a shaken Tavares tried to get back on his feet while a trainer tried (and failed) to stabilize his head and neck, was beyond horrific.
Canadian doctors and coaches rushed to help Toronto’s medical staff secure Tavares to the backboard while players and coaches on both teams saw expressions of shock and horror on their faces.
“I just saw John,” said Canadian goalkeeper Carey Price, who was watching from about 150 feet away. “I was pretty discouraged to see this happen to such a good guy. It was a pretty sobering reminder that hockey is just a game, and I obviously hope he’s okay. “
Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe updated in his post-game comments that Tavares was conscious and communicating well and would stay in the hospital overnight and not be released until tests showed he was “clear”.
Nick Foligno, who fought Perry immediately after the game resumed, later said he doesn’t think Tavares, who was injured, was anything more than an accident. He also spoke about the impact of the whole situation on the Maple Leafs and how difficult it was for them to regain consciousness immediately afterwards.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Just the human side. John probably gets it and I think it’s just part of the game sadly but he wants us to go ahead and try to win. And that’s the unfortunate part; We didn’t give him a win tonight, and that’s the part that scores the most. “
It’s the part where Canadians had a big say.
They stormed out of goal, scoring 28 goals in the opening frame as well as the all-important first goal, scored two minutes and nine seconds after Tavares left the ice and the game resumed.
It was Burlington, Ontario’s Josh Anderson, who scored the goal and stormed through Toronto’s defense. He reached a speed of over 41 kilometers per hour before firing a shot from the center of the right post and defeating goalkeeper Jack Campbell.
The Maple Leafs returned in the second half with a fifth-minute goal from William Nylander, but Canadian goalkeeper Carey Price made all seven other attempts in the frame.
That was after he made 14 stops in the first period and before he stopped another 14 in the third – including a failing blocker, except for a 2v1 attempt by Mitch Marner.
“We always believe in this guy,” Paul Byron told Sportsnet’s Kyle Bukauskas. “He is unbelievable. In practice, he’s so competitive every day. We always have faith in him, we know he can steal a game anytime, and he was amazing tonight. He had enormous savings over Marner and many others.
“He’s our best player and he really showed up for us tonight.”
Price wasn’t alone. Almost every Canadiens player was effective in this game, from the best to those who were least effective during the regular season. When Price and Anderson were at the top of the list, Eric Staal was right next to them.
He bore the brunt of so much criticism after continuing a sad first half with the Buffalo Sabers with just two goals and three points and a minus 10 rating in 21 games with the Canadiens. They’d skipped mediocre decisions in the 2021 draft to purchase Staal’s winning pedigree and invested in his Hall of Fame-worthy career, though there was little evidence he still had it, halfway to play as effectively as he had done throughout the draft, and it looked like a total misinterpretation until he stepped on the ice for this game.
Staal got out after setting up Anderson’s goal and after scoring two shots and three hits and winning 50 percent of his faceoffs. He was a constant presence in front of the net and one of the few bright spots in a power game that stuttered and shut down on five tries.
“Playoffs are a different atmosphere and a different game,” remarked Anderson before adding to Staal, a member of hockey’s exclusive Triple Gold Club. “He’s been through it all so he’s a great leader in the room and you knew what presence he would bring tonight and what character he is. I don’t think anyone was surprised how he played. I thought he was solid in both areas of the game tonight and we need that to move forward. “
The Canadians got something similar from everyone on their side.
“It was a real playoff game,” said Ducharme. “I said we were ready and we were.”
He saw the evidence in the way his defense unpacked the most dangerous parts of the ice, in the way all of his players took care of the little details and came together as a team, and he felt that Price was helping the Canadians to suppress those Maple Leafs waves as they crashed.
“I thought we were pretty consistent on both sides,” he said. “And that’s the kind of game we want to play.”
It’s the kind of game Canadians have to play again on Saturday, with Game 2 on the horizon.