If Dominique Ducharme had charted this one out on a white board before it got started, it would’ve turned out this way—a 2-1 win for his Montreal Canadiens, who executed in all three zones and in nearly every situation at Scotiabank Arena in this series-opening game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Despite losing 14 of the last 21 games, including each of the final five of the regular season, Ducharme said earlier on Thursday he felt the Canadiens were ready to face the North Division champs, that a week of practices in the lead up to this series had prepared them, and that he was certain they would assert their style.
“We’re very confident heading into the series,” Ducharme said. “We expect our four lines to use their strengths and contribute. On the defensive side of things, I think our defencemen will be tough to face. We’ll get started like that.”
It’s how the Canadiens finished, too, and with their arms in the air after an all-team effort helped them rock the Maple Leafs back on their heels.
This one had a bit of everything, with both teams combining for three goals, 66 shots, 107 attempts and 81 hits. Every square inch of the ice was hotly contested, every race was tight, and the margin for error was as slim as it gets. It featured everything you love to see in a playoff game, but also one thing you never want to see in any game.
It was just over halfway through the first period when Ben Chiarot stepped up in the neutral zone and hit Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. Tavares was sent careening to the ice and barreling towards Canadiens forward Corey Perry, who, in an attempt to get out of the way, jumped and caught Tavares’ head with his knee, cutting him and knocking him unconscious.
“I don't know what else to do there,” Perry said afterwards. “I tried to jump. I know Johnny pretty well and just hope he's OK."
There wasn’t a person in the building, or anyone watching the game anywhere, who wasn’t thankful to see Tavares put his thumb up to signal he was alright as he was stretchered off the ice and just before he was taken to a nearby Toronto hospital. The scene that ensued immediately following the collision, with a shaken Tavares trying to will his way back to his feet while a trainer tried (and failed) to stabilize his head and neck was beyond frightful.
Canadiens doctors and trainers rushed to help Toronto’s medical staff secure Tavares to the backboard as players and coaches from both teams looked on wearing expressions of shock and horror on their faces.
“I just saw John down,” said Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who was watching from roughly 150 feet away. “I was pretty disheartened to see that happen to such a good guy. It was a pretty sobering reminder that hockey’s just a game, and I’m obviously hoping he’ll be OK.”
Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe updated in his post-game comments that Tavares was conscious and communicating well and would be kept at the hospital overnight and only released once tests proved he was “clear.”
Nick Foligno, who fought Perry immediately once play resumed, later said he didn’t believe Tavares getting injured was anything more than an accident. He also spoke about the impact the whole situation had on the Maple Leafs and how difficult it was for them to regain their composure in the immediate aftermath of it.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Just the human side. John understands it probably, and I think it’s just a part of the game unfortunately, but he’d want us to continue on and try and win. And that’s the unfortunate part; we didn’t get him a win tonight, and that’s the part that stings the most.”
It’s the part the Canadiens had a big say in.
They came out of the gate charging, notching 28 hits in the opening frame and the all-important first goal, which came two minutes and nine seconds after Tavares left the ice and play resumed.
It was Burlington, Ontario’s Josh Anderson who scored it, charging through Toronto’s defence, clocked topping out at over 41 kilometres per hour before he snapped a shot off the middle of the right post and beat goaltender Jack Campbell.
The Maple Leafs charged back in the second period with a goal in the fifth minute of play from William Nylander, but Canadiens goaltender Carey Price denied all seven of their other efforts 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 lunging blocker save on a Mitch Marner 2-on-1 attempt.
“We always believe in this guy,” Paul Byron, who knifed his way through shorthanded and scored the game-winner from his knees with 7:16 remaining in the third period, told Sportsnet’s Kyle Bukauskas. “He’s unbelievable. Every day in practice, he’s so competitive. We always have faith in him, we know he can steal a game at any point, and he was incredible tonight. He had a huge, huge save on Marner, and many others.
“He’s our best player, and he really showed up for us tonight.”
Price wasn’t alone. Nearly every Canadiens player was effective in this one, from their best ones down to the ones who were least effective during the regular season. If Price and Anderson were at the top of the list, Eric Staal was right there next to them.
He bore the brunt of so much criticism after he followed up a woeful first half with the Buffalo Sabres with just two goals and three points and a minus-10 rating in 21 games with the Canadiens. They had given up middling picks in the 2021 draft to acquire Staal’s winning pedigree, investing in his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career despite there being little evidence he still had it in him to play half as effectively as he had throughout it, and it was looking like a total misread until he stepped onto the ice for this game.
Staal stepped off of it having set up Anderson’s goal and after notching two shots and three hits and winning 50 per cent of his faceoffs. He was a consistent presence in front of the net and one of the few bright spots on a power play that sputtered and was shut down on five attempts.
“Playoffs is a different atmosphere and different game,” Anderson noted before expanding on 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 the presence he was going to bring tonight and the character that he has. I don’t think anyone was surprised by the way he played. I thought he was solid in both areas of the game tonight and we need that moving forward.”
The Canadiens 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 defence boxed out the most dangerous parts of the ice, in the way all his players took care of the little details and came together as a team, and he felt Price helped the Canadiens suppress those Maple Leafs waves when they came crashing.
“I thought we were pretty consistent on both sides,” he said. “And that’s the type of game that we want to play.”
It’s the type of game the Canadiens will have to play again come Saturday, with Game 2 on the horizon.