MONTREAL — The torch was lit in the upper reaches of the Bell Centre and held aloft by former captain Yvan Cournoyer. After making its way through the parade of legends in another stirring pre-game ceremony by the Montreal Canadiens, eventually passed from Jean Beliveau to current captain Brian Gionta, a young boy emerged to skate it off to safety.
He might as well have dropped it in the Toronto Maple Leafs goal crease before heading off.
That’s where Ben Scrivens was thrown right into the middle of hockey’s boiling hot cauldron on Saturday night after being given the 12th start of his NHL career by coach Randy Carlyle. The nerves were as unavoidable as they were understandable. With a playoff-type atmosphere at the start of a long-awaited 48-game season and a national television audience watching along with the 21, 273 in attendance and a Leafs fanbase fixated on the team’s goaltending situation, there was simply nowhere for Scrivens to hide.
And on the off chance he needed to be reminded about the challenge in front of him, Scrivens got a good wakeup call in the first minute when Ryan White came crashing into the crease and knocked the goaltender into his net. The puck made its way there too — an easy no-goal call for referee Brad Meier — which turned out to be something the Habs wouldn’t do again until Gionta knocked home a rebound with just over six minutes left in regulation.
The score at that time? Toronto 2, Montreal 1.
It should have been game on. Instead, the Maple Leafs stepped up their checking game and allowed their 26-year-old goaltender to play out the final three minutes without so much as facing a shot. That, as much as anything, told the story of a Toronto victory in Game 1.
“It was a really gutsy the last six minutes after they got that goal to clear pucks out, clear the lanes and secure the win for us,” said Scrivens. “Our entire team played extremely well defensively.”
Carlyle preached the need for that repeatedly during an abbreviated six-day training camp that didn’t include any exhibition games. He also fretted over the decision of which goalie to start in the opener before electing to give Scrivens the nod over James Reimer based on a solid camp and his play this season in the American Hockey League, where he had won nine of his last 11 games for the Marlies.
The goaltending storyline had become almost a preoccupation in recent months, especially with persistent trade rumours linking veteran Roberto Luongo to the Leafs.
But general manager Dave Nonis and Carlyle have expressed a commitment to promoting players from within the organization while relying on an up-tempo, tight-checking system for success. The results were plain to see at the Bell Centre with Nazem Kadri scoring a goal and undrafted 27-year-old defenceman Mike Kostka shining in his NHL debut. Like Scrivens, both spent the lockout playing for the Marlies.
The task of shutting down opponents as effectively as Toronto managed to against the listless Habs will only get a tougher — a visit to Pittsburgh for the Penguins home opener on Wednesday looms large — but the first game of the shortened season proved that the team can make life easier for its goaltender. That’s an important mindset for the players to embrace as they start a sprint towards what they hope becomes an unlikely post-season berth.
“We don’t ask our goaltenders to win the hockey game; we ask our goaltenders to give us a chance,” said Carlyle. “I thought Ben Scrivens gave us a chance.”
And he’ll likely be given the chance to step back between the pipes on Monday night when the Leafs host Buffalo at Air Canada Centre.
Scrivens weathered his share of uneasy moments against the Habs. Not only did he trip and fall at one point behind his net (“I think he should get his skates sharpened,” cracked Carlyle), but he had the benefit of a tipped point shot that rang loudly off the post in the second period. And many of his 21 saves came on shots from outside of the dangerous scoring areas.
It was an ideal scenario for someone in his situation, especially on an opening day that came with several reminders of how unpredictable this shortened season might end up being in the NHL. Jonathan Quick watched the Stanley Cup banner he helped win for Los Angeles in June raised to the rafters and then looked helpless while allowing five goals to Chicago. And Luongo didn’t even get to spend half a game as Cory Schneider’s backup before being sent in for relief duty against Anaheim.
Meanwhile, Scrivens and the Leafs will continue to live by a “one-for-all, all-for one” mentality.
“The word ‘my’ or “I” is not in this team’s vocabulary,” said Carlyle. “What we’ve tried to do is we’ve tried to create an atmosphere that we can be proud of and we’re trying to earn respect back for the organization.”
One game down. Forty-seven more to go.