It’s the most anticipated NHL season in a long time. What did we learn watching Montreal and Toronto lock horns in Game 1 of the year?
We’ve said it time and again in the THN office in the weeks leading up to 2015-16: this is the most anticipated hockey season in years. From Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel’s arrivals to Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh to 3-on-3 overtime to the beginning of the Mike Babcock era, the NHL has exciting storylines coming out the wazoo. And the Montreal Canadiens’ season-opening tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs gave us an accurate snapshot of what to expect from the game’s maddest markets in 2015-16.
Here are five takeaways from Game 1 of the NHL season:
1. The Leafs were who we thought they were
There was nothing remotely surprising about Toronto’s performance in a 3-1 loss to Montreal. They managed 37 shots on Habs goalie Carey Price and converted just one of them. They had plenty of high-quality chances, including wide-open looks for Brad Boyes, Nick Spaling and Peter Holland at various points in the game, but couldn’t finish. Expect a lot of that this season. Kessel is a Penguin and offensively gifted William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen are not yet NHLers. James van Riemsdyk has some legit talent, and Nazem Kadri looked good in Game 1, but few NHL rosters have less skill to start the season than Toronto’s. The Leafs are as strong a bet as any squad to finish last in goals this year. Yes, they faced the best netminder on Earth, but they’ll make the Ondrej Pavelecs and Karri Ramos of the world look like Price plenty of times in 2015-16.
That’s not to say new coach Mike Babcock had zero effect. The Leafs outchanced the Habs and played a fairly disciplined game, taking just one penalty. They didn’t make any glaring gaffes or show any signs of laziness. Their on-ice behavior suggests Babcock will successfully ice a smart, hardworking group this year, even if that group lacks elite talent. At the morning skate Wednesday, Dion Phaneuf, Shawn Matthias and Brad Boyes each singled out Babcock for his attention to detail. Boyes insisted that no two coaches were the same, that he’s had good coaches and bad coaches, and that Babcock falls in the former category. The players really feel the difference with Babcock in town.
So we should expect many more games exactly like Wednesday’s, for better and for worse, in Hogtown this year.
2. Max Pacioretty is really good – and he’s still hurt
The Montreal Canadiens gave ‘Patches’ the captaincy a few weeks ago, and he repaid them with the Habs’ first and third goals, one an empty-netter. He was dangerous all night long and his shot looked potent. He looked very much like the man with more goals than everyone except Alex Ovechkin and Joe Pavelski over the past two seasons.
That said, Pacioretty is not fully recovered from fracturing his tibia this summer. He glided around pretty well on the ice, but it was a different story in the hallways of the Air Canada Centre mere minutes after the game. Pacioretty hobbled around, a huge bag of ice strapped to his leg. He’s healed enough to play great hockey, but is he rushing back? He certainly wouldn’t be the first player to do it.
3. The coach’s challenge works!
Jeff Petry scored what looked like a beautiful goal on a spin-o-rama feed from Pacioretty. Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier claimed Tomas Plekanec interfered with him. Babcock made the first official coach’s challenge in NHL history, and it was a smashing success. Challenges apply only to goals in which goalie interference or offside players factor in, so this play qualified. The referees did a nice job reviewing the play quickly, the delay was relatively short, and voila, goal reversed. It was a perfect showcase for the new rule, and the crowd really seemed to appreciate it. They cheered the successful challenge louder than they did any other Leaf accomplishments Wednesday night.
4. Montreal remains Carey Price’s team…but he may have help
In a vacuum, the 3-1 game could’ve been from last season and no one would’ve noticed. Habs outshot, Price posts a .973 save percentage, he’s named first star, Habs win. It was stolen right from his 2014-15 Hart Trophy campaign. This team will still only go as far as their superstar stopper goes.
Probably. A potential wrinkle Habs fans should be excited about: Mr. Alex Galchenyuk. The 21-year-old, drafted third overall in 2012, posted statistical highs across the board last year, including 20 goals and 46 points. He seemed to knock on the door of a breakout. I spoke with him before and after the game last night, and he seemed especially fired up about coach Michel Therrien entrusting him at his natural position of center. Galchenyuk was comfortable all night, said he felt better and better on faceoffs throughout, and he rifled home the game-winning goal. Therrien even trotted Galchenyuk out in the dying minutes for a crucial shutdown assignment. It was a huge vote of confidence.
“It was nice, no doubt,” Galchenyuk said. “I’m trying to focus on the defensive zone. I’m trying to be solid out there, spending a lot of time in practices focusing on and looking at systems. So it was nice to be out there, and hopefully it will continue to be that way.”
Pacioretty is a highly effective and extremely underrated forward, but if we’re talking pure ceiling, Galchenyuk is the player to watch. He’s the one Hab forward with potential to blossom into a true superstar, the type to challenge for scoring titles and major individual hardware. If Galchenyuk ascends to that status, it takes a lot of heat off Price to carry this team night in and night out.
5. Leaf fan expectations are incredibly realistic
I like to call the ACC the Air Canada Morgue. Person for person, it’s the NHL’s quietest building, filled with comp ticket attendees and schmoozers in suits who leave the platinum seats exposed for the first five minutes of every period.
Yet, even by the ACC’s low standard, the crowd was dead last night. Nary a peep. The player introductions ellicited dull murmurs. The biggest ovation of the night by far went to the Toronto Blue Jays, revealed to be in attendance. They clearly and deservedly own the city’s affection right now.
At one point, an ACC security attendee banged as loud as he could on a railing, trying to wake the crowd up and start a ‘Go Leafs Go’ chant.
“This is a hockey game, you know!” he yelled. “It’s OK to cheer! Come on!”
And that was in the nosebleed section, supposedly the building’s loudest. That moment really captured the perspective of Leaf Nation: that this season is about gutting all the work the previous regime had done, undergoing a true rebuild, finishing at the bottom of the standings and snagging another high draft pick. Last night showed the fans have matured. There was no false optimism. Maybe that will mean no boos and jersey throwing this year.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin