After what seemed like an eternity over the summer, hockey officially came roaring back as the NHL’s regular season took off. The Toronto Maple Leafs took on their rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, in a game that is always a treat to watch. Montreal ended up taking this one by a score of 3-1, but don’t let the numbers fool you, this game was much closer than it appeared.
The Maple Leafs for the most part played a solid game. They had excellent chances, goaltending was mostly solid after that first shot and they appeared to continue competing all the way up to the end. Based on watching the game, here are some interesting points.
Maple Leafs Win NHL’s First Ever Coach’s Challenge
Mike Babcock made a little bit of hockey history on opening night. Montreal’s Jeff Petry looked to have scored a goal that would have put the Habs up 2-1. It was ruled a good goal on the ice, until replays came back of Tomas Plekanec interfering with Jonathan Bernier in his crease.
Que Babcock issuing the challenge. Upon further review of the play, interference was called and the ruling on the ice was to take back the goal and leave the score tied again. It was the first successful coaching challenge in the NHL. The new rule brings an interesting element to the game, and despite it not getting tested much in the preseason, it appears to have tremendous upside for the future.
Maple Leafs Showed a Different Compete and Tempo Level
Leaf teams in the past few years have all had one thing in common. If they were in a losing situation, their will would break and they would begin to give up. Though it’s early, this Leafs team seemed to be very different. They played hard despite surrendering the first goal and went down fighting. They peppered the Montreal net with chances all night, forcing Carey Price to show why he’s one of the best goaltenders in the world.
Not only was the compete level significantly different, so was the tempo. The new system really gives Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner time and space to use their excellent skating. It feels like they were given the green light to jump up into the rush and generally play to their strengths.
The transition game was much faster and more crisp. No longer are the Leafs dumping the puck in and trying in vain to get it back. Breakouts were much cleaner and were supported by the majority of the players on the ice. The Leaf forwards also showed some back-checking and support, something which had become suspect the last few seasons. As Babcock continues to coach this team, his systems will become more and more apparent.
Nazem Kadri Has a Good Debut
Coming into this campaign, Babcock had wanted Kadri to be an elite centreman in the NHL. The 2009 first round pick listened and began to prepare himself for what is essentially a make or break type of year. The former London Knight was elevated to the top line for the opener, in order for him to be given a chance to show that he can compete.
Kadri was arguably the Leafs best forward for the night. He contributed an assist on the power-play goal by James van Riemsdyk, he was physical on the majority of his shifts and he was even sent out when the goalie was pulled, a move brought on by Babcock’s confidence in him. He also won seven of his 13 draws on the night. That number will need to improve, but it is only the first game. The changes were definitely recognizable, and should continue to become more evident as the season rolls along.