On the opening night of the 2019-20 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs met the Ottawa Senators in an Atlantic Division clash. It was a great game to watch, and the Maple Leafs won 5-3, after going behind 1-0 in the first minute of the game. However, by the middle of the second period, the Maple Leafs were on top of their game and showed the overwhelming offensive speed and firepower that one hopes might become their trademark this season.
It’s hard to imagine a team in the NHL being able to play open-ice speed hockey like the Maple Leafs do – perhaps the Tampa Bay Lightning? And, although the Senators came to within 5-3, the game never looked in doubt – especially after a really nice goal by former Maple Leafs Ron Hainsey was called back when the “man upstairs” – the Maple Leafs video review guy – caught a Senators’ player offside that the linesman missed.
In this post, I want to offer five player reviews for this first game of the season. Here are some thoughts from the game-one victory.
Player Review One: John Tavares
Well, we finally know who the Maple Leafs’ captain is. Just before the start of the game, when the entire roster made its way to the ice, they introduced John Tavares as team captain. That choice was rumored ahead of time, but until the arena announcer called out “John Tavares, #91” as the 25th captain in Maple Leafs’ history, no one knew for certain.
The team has not had a captain since Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Senators three seasons ago. He had served as Maple Leafs captain for just over six seasons. In the choice of captain, the organization showed that it values strong, more-reserved, lead-by-example leadership. And Tavares demonstrates that in spades.
As far as his play, Tavares took up residence in front of Craig Anderson’s net all night, utilizing what I believe is some of the best hand-eye coordination for any NHL center. He had a power-play assist when he banged the puck out of traffic, fed it to Mitch Marner, who sent a crazy-good, no-look pass to Auston Matthews to give his team a 4-2 second-period lead.
Player Review Two: Tyson Barrie
Barrie had a strong game-one debut – a welcome-to-Toronto party for the offensive defenseman. It was only one game, but it seems general manager Kyle Dubas was wise to trade for him during the offseason. Barrie had his best season last year, with 59 points (14 goals and 45 assists in 78 games). I wouldn’t be surprised if he hit 70 points this season. He really adds spark to the Toronto defense.
Player Review Three: Ilya Mikheyev
Ilya Mikheyev looked both fast and good during the team’s preseason, and he continued to impress in his first regular-season game. His first Maple Leafs goal was a neat one-timer, where he looked to be Matthews-lite – same position on the ice, same one-time delivery.
It was a nice goal, made possible by two great plays. First, as noted earlier, the feed from defenseman Barrie was great. Barrie spotted him and got the pass through traffic right on Mikheyev’s stick. But the young Russian had to be in the right spot on the ice, and he was.
Both new Maple
Player Review Four: Frederik Gauthier
My friend Joe Felice, former THW writer and super Maple Leafs fan,
Related: Maple Leafs’ 5 Most Memorable Debuts
Gauthier got a blue-collar goal, the team’s first goal of the season. He also looked good cycling the puck. He centered a fourth line that looked good enough to pressure the defense. I’m encouraged by the fourth line and especially Gauthier. I missed seeing Jason Spezza play last night, but the bottom six (both lines) looked helpful to the team’s cause.
Player Review Five: Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews seems to love opening night. He scored two goals and led all players with eight shots on net. But, perhaps what impressed me most was his on-ice thinking and passing. He can handle the puck and can think the game. He scored consecutive goals, only seven minutes apart during the second period. In what’s becoming routine, the 22-year-old alternate captain had another explosive start to the regular season. If Matthews remains healthy, he’ll easily surpass the 37 goals, 36 assists, and 73 points he scored last season.
According to an NHL tweet, Matthews’ nine goals in season-opening games tie Babe Dye for the most in Maple Leafs franchise history. In fact, Matthews came close to scoring a hat trick during the last seconds of Wednesday’s game, but Senators forward Erik Brannstrom checked him off the puck before he could twist it into an empty net.
During the play, Brannstrom caught Matthews’ skate in his face. Fortunately, he needed only a few stitches but will be fine.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
On Friday evening, Oct. 4, the Maple Leafs travel to Ohio to meet the Columbus Blue Jackets. I hope Spezza will make a start on the team’s fourth line. I also look forward to more exciting hockey from the Maple Leafs. If game one was any indication, it should be a fun season.