TORONTO – It was the kind of win that probably would have eluded the Toronto Maple Leafs a year ago.
Clinging to a one-goal lead with the opposition pressing in the final minute, goaltender J-S Giguere delivered two saves coach Ron Wilson figures he wouldn’t have got at the start of last season. The veteran goaltender extended his left pad as Montreal’s Brian Gionta got two whacks at the puck just before the buzzer sounded on Toronto’s 3-2 victory Thursday.
“He played really well,” said Wilson. “He focuses and battles every shot. Looking at the game, this is probably one that last year we’d get tied against in the last minute. Because of a couple of great saves, we ended up preserving the win.”
Better goaltending was one of the key reasons Wilson felt good heading into the year, and Giguere justified his optimism in the season opener. He was sharp all night and finished with 26 saves.
Wilson never seemed to have much confidence in Vesa Toskala, who started last season as the Leafs top goaltender and was shipped to Anaheim in the Jan. 31 trade that brought Giguere to Toronto.
The 33-year-old is the oldest player on a young Leafs team and has brought the confidence that comes with being a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner. His poise showed when everything got frantic in the final minute.
“I was holding my breath, that’s for sure,” said Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur, who scored the winning goal. “Good goalies find ways to make those saves. He got us the win there, right at the end. He battled hard and I thought the team battled around him.
“I just thought Jiggy controlled his rebounds all night—it makes it a lot easier on the team when a goalie is confident like that.”
Tim Brent and Phil Kessel also scored for the Maple Leafs, who won their first home opener since October 2000. Dustin Boyd and Jeff Halpern replied in their first games for Montreal.
With the clock ticking down, Gionta was sure he was going to tie it.
“He made two or three big saves on me there at the end,” said the Habs captain. “I thought I had it, but he found a way to get his pad on it.”
Toronto took advantage of a Canadiens team that was missing some key personnel. Winger Mike Cammalleri sat out a one-game suspension while defencemen Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik were each recovering from knee injuries.
Their absence was probably felt most with the man advantage as Montreal went 0-for-3 on the power play.
“For sure, any time you’re without two of your most talented guys the power play is going to take a hit,” said Gionta.
It was a typically tight game between the old rivals, who needed extra time to decide five of their six meetings a year ago. That includes last season’s opener, when Montreal tied it late before pulling out a 4-3 win in overtime.
Only six Leafs players who played in that game were on the ice for this one—a sign of the massive overhaul GM Brian Burke has undertaken over the last 12 months.
MacArthur, one of the new faces, scored the eventual winner. He made a nice play to beat Habs defenceman Jaroslav Spacek before putting a backhander behind Carey Price at 1:36 of the third period.
“That was a special goal for me,” said MacArthur. “A lot of my goals are off the side of the net. They’re ugly. So I’ll take a pretty one every once and awhile.”
Halpern replied less than a minute later to make it 3-2, but that was as close as Montreal would get.
Beyond Giguere’s performance, there was plenty for Toronto to feel positive about. The journeyman Brent opened the scoring with his second NHL goal while Kessel picked up where he left off after a productive pre-season.
But Wilson was quick to try and rein in his team. In the moments after Thursday’s victory, he was already looking forward to Saturday’s matchup against Ottawa.
“It’s one game, we’re not going to get carried away,” said Wilson. “We’ve got another rival (on Saturday) and that’ll be another energetic affair. … I’m banning all newspapers from the room tomorrow, and making sure the TV’s not on.
“I’m sure they’ve already planned the Stanley Cup parade.”
Notes:Leafs defencemen Brett Lebda (shoulder) and Jeff Finger (knee) sat out, while forwardJohn Mitchell was a healthy scratch … Price was sporting a new mask with a bucking bronco on each side over top of the team’s logo. It has his last name along the bottom. … Announced attendance was 19,646.