Canadiens' building blocks on display in opening-night loss to Maple Leafs

Morgan Rielly scored at 3:24 of overtime to give the Toronto Maple Leafs a 5-4 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

If you have to wait over 100 days to watch a hockey game, you can do worse than a 5-4 overtime thriller between two teams who have been rivals for over a century.

Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs, on the national stage, for the first of 10 meetings over a 56-game schedule, combining for 66 shots on net, 44 hits and featuring a heavyweight tilt and more than a few liberties — and numbers — taken. Yes, please.

Pump it into our veins. We’ll take as much of it as we can get.

Still, it wasn’t perfect. Not for the Leafs, and certainly not for the Canadiens, who relinquished 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3 leads and missed out on two of the three better chances in overtime before John Tavares found Morgan Rielly for the goal that gave Toronto a precious one-point edge in the all-Canadian North-Division standings.

Did you expect perfection from this Canadiens team on opening night? Did you expect them to do everything the right way after months apart from each other and just a 10-day training camp to integrate seven new players?

We didn’t.

But a lot of what we did expect from Montreal was on full display. And most of it was good, from Josh Anderson registering two goals, seven shots on net and three hits, to 21-year-old Alexander Romanov earning an assist with a beautiful three-line breakaway pass and logging close to 22 minutes in his first NHL game to the (promising-looking) power play scoring on two of three opportunities, to Nick Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin rekindling the magic they found in this very arena back in the August playoffs, to Carey Price making some highlight-reel saves to the Canadiens playing the exact brand of hockey they promised they would — fast, in your face, physical and exciting.

Without an exhibition game to tune up, this is almost all this team could’ve hoped for.

Almost.

“I obviously felt that we were the better team,” said Anderson, who doubled his goal output from the injury riddled disappointment that was the 26-game 2019-20 season for him. “We talked about, before the game, staying out of the box with these guys, because that’s where they get momentum — and obviously they did (gain momentum on the power play) tonight.”

Which brings to the bad stuff the Canadiens did: a lost defensive-zone faceoff from Jake Evans and some spotty coverage from his linemates on William Nylander’s game-tying goal in the first period, a rash of four consecutive penalties in the second period that allowed the Leafs to score the two goals that made it 3-3 going to the third and a bad line change in overtime from Paul Byron that gave teammate Brendan Gallagher no chance of catching Rielly to prevent the winning goal.

But that’s the stuff early season games are made of, which Canadiens coach Claude Julien, who’s in his 18th NHL season behind the bench, can certainly attest to.

“It’s easy to criticize every little mistake that happens,” Julien said after the game.

“But we’re for sure going to build on this, and we’ll try to get better in the areas we had trouble with,” he added.

Don’t mistake that for a moral victory speech.

We’re 13 days into 2021 and it feels like we’ve already covered a year’s worth of quotes speaking to how much this Canadiens team expects of itself. Time is precious in this shortened season and these guys aren’t going to be satisfied with a loss — even if it came at the hands of a Toronto team that can and will capitalize on even the smallest of mistakes.

And the Canadiens made big enough ones to lose, even if Anderson said they were the better team and then doubled down on that statement by saying that “anybody watching” could see it.

What we could recognize was that the promise of this Canadiens team was on display. And if they could show it this early, and against this potent Leafs team, there’s reason to believe games they should win will be won more often than not.

Heck, this one might have resulted in a regulation win for the Canadiens had a smart play Drouin made not turned into total misfortune. Up 4-3 with a little less than 10 minutes to play in the third period — in large part thanks to the three assists he registered — Drouin reversed the breakout and coolly shrugged off Toronto’s forecheck before setting up an easy out of the zone that was intercepted by referee Kendrick Nicholson.

The puck hit Nicholson and caromed to Nylander, who offered Jimmy Vesey what had to be the easiest of his 60 goals in the NHL — a nice gift for his first as a Leaf.

“It’s a tough bounce,” said Montreal’s Tomas Tatar.

It was an incredibly unlucky bounce, actually.

Still, as Tatar noted, the Canadiens rallied and created enough opportunities to walk away with two points instead of one.

When Montreal centre Phillip Danault booted a breakaway after a marathon shift in overtime — one of three breakaways they couldn’t convert on (at least Tatar scored on his) — you knew it was a bad omen.

But the Canadiens will leave that at Scotiabank Arena.

What they take with them to Edmonton, ahead of two games with Oilers, is the confidence that this can come together quickly. The building blocks are in place.

As for us, well, we were treated to a fantastic hockey game we won’t soon forget.

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