For Leafs, heartbreaking Game 1 loss pales in comparison to Tavares’ health

Paul Byron scored a highlight reel shorthanded goal in the third period that proved to be the game-winner and the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 to take a 1-0 series lead.

TORONTO — You wait so long for a series like this one and then almost immediately forget why you cared so much to begin with.

To be inside a silent Scotiabank Arena as John Tavares tried and failed to get up off the ice was to have your stomach in your throat. The feeling couldn’t have been any more comfortable in living rooms across the country, no matter the colours on your favourite sweater.

“You think about his family watching it,” Zach Hyman said.

“Horrible,” added teammate Nick Foligno. “Life comes into play at that point, just seeing how he was in pain. It made you sick to your stomach. You think about him as a family man, too.”

There was the Toronto Maple Leafs captain — a father of two young boys, a husband and son who came home to chase the Stanley Cup three summers ago — clearly disoriented, bleeding from his face and struggling in a confused state just 10 minutes into this playoff campaign.

Paul Ayotte, the Leafs head athletic therapist, was immediately at Tavares’s side trying to stabilize his neck. His assistant Jon Geller was quick to react, too. Jason Spezza appeared to be offering reassurance while Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Mitch Marner and other teammates lingered nearby.

Tavares had been part of a frightening high-speed collision with Corey Perry’s knee, an unfortunate accident after he got knocked spinning to the ice by Ben Chiarot and took the brunt of the impact to his chin, and the only tiny measure of relief came when he gave a thumbs-up while getting stretchered off.

It was awful.

“That was probably the most uncomfortable situation that I’ve been a part of on the ice,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “It was really tough to get through, our players were rattled and concerned. I was obviously very concerned as well.”

The Montreal Canadiens were concerned enough to send out a brief statement expressing their support during the first intermission. That they took a 1-0 series lead with a 2-1 victory Thursday still felt secondary even after Keefe provided an encouraging initial health update on his captain: “He’s conscious and communicating well. The tests that he’s had so far have come back clear.”

Tavares is expected to remain in hospital through Friday and should be presumed sidelined indefinitely given the traumatic nature of the collision.

The scene was eerily reminiscent of one involving defenceman Jake Muzzin in the bubble last August — except that happened in the final minutes of a game, not with two and a half periods still to play.

The Leafs were understandably stunned in the aftermath of the Tavares incident, allowing Josh Anderson to score in transition soon after the game resumed, but seemed to regain focus after Keefe addressed his players during the intermission.

They had every chance to find a win after William Nylander tied the score. Carey Price was a difference-maker on Montreal’s side of the ledger, immediately assuming past playoff form despite returning from a month-long injury absence.

Auston Matthews finished with 13 shot attempts. Price stopped the eight that got through and saw another hit the post. He then slid across to rob Marner during a 2-on-1 rush while the game was tied during the third period.

That set the stage for Paul Byron’s game-breaking, short-handed rush, getting a step around rookie Rasmus Sandin and chipping the puck over Jack Campbell with seven minutes left in regulation. It will renew questions about a struggling Leafs power play that went 0-for-5 on the night despite generating far more quality looks than it was late in the regular season.

Foligno hadn’t even seen a replay of the Tavares collision when he engaged Perry in a fight off the ensuing faceoff. All he saw was a teammate in a tough spot and an opponent who hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

“I just think it’s playoff hockey, first and foremost, so you’re not taking a backwards step to anybody,” Foligno said. “And our captain’s laying on the ice, guys. I don’t know what more I need to say than that. … John goes down, I didn’t like it. It’s the beginning of a game, however unfortunate it is, and we fought. You get it over with. I think it takes away any grey.

“Whatever happened, I think it just allows everyone to go back and play.”

Here the Leafs are in tough again to start a playoff series.

They lost Nazem Kadri to suspensions on their way to Game 7 losses against the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019, and never quite recovered from Muzzin’s absence while dropping the best-of-five to Columbus in the bubble.

Keefe now has a decision to make on Sandin, who was dropped from the power play following Byron’s short-handed goal, not to mention a lineup reshuffle without his No. 2 centre. His group has 48 hours to ponder Price’s dominance. And the loss of Tavares will shift even more offensive pressure to Marner and Matthews, who did everything but score while playing monster minutes in Game 1.

“It’s a big loss, it’s our captain,” Keefe said. “Good teams overcome these types of things and that’s going to be on us here now.”

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