GREAT GRIT: Maple Leafs dig deep in opening win over Canadiens

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As much as the Maple Leafs need flash, it’s their blue-collar effort and goaltending that will make the difference in this new 82-game season.


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Lack of those hurt them in the playoffs against Montreal last year and so putting that stamp on their home opening effort versus the same foe in a full house was a must.

The grinder line of Pierre Engvall, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf was vital as were key shot blocks by Kampf and Justin Holl in a long, tense third-period 5-on-3 penalty-kill that aided Jack Campbell in preserving a 2-1 victory.

Engvall’s first-period goal and the winner by William Nylander, delighted 18,493 fans, who became fully engaged with their team again after the COVID-19 shutdown in the third period with the big kill, part of a 4-for-4 night for the unit.

Maple Leafs’ Jake Muzzin (left) battles on the boards with Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson during Wednesday’s game in Toronto. DAN HAMILTON/USA TODAY SPORTS
Maple Leafs’ Jake Muzzin (left) battles on the boards with Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson during Wednesday’s game in Toronto. DAN HAMILTON/USA TODAY SPORTS

“When our offence isn’t clicking (Auston Matthews and Ilya Mikheyev were unavailable, Mitch Marner and John Tavares were plain unlucky) it’s definitely important to be blue collar and win those battles,” Holl said. “It’s all part of the game. The penalty-kill was a huge factor.”


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Close to 600 days had elapsed since Scotiabank Arena was this full, while in that span, two playoff series ended in home-ice defeats with mostly artificial crowd noise. Although almost half of the players on both teams from Game 7 are currently injured or have moved on, there was heavy symbolism in coming out strong.

“The first 10 minutes, it took us a while to get comfortable, but from then on the effort was really strong,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The guys worked hard and I’m happy to come out on the right side of it. The crowd was engaged and Soupy was holding us in.”

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Campbell, who endured a tough summer for his role in the playoff letdown, made seven mostly difficult early saves from a combination of bad bounces and mates’ miscues, before Jonathan Drouin scored on a 2-on-1. It was a triumph for Drouin after time away from the game last year dealing with personal anxiety issues, but the only puck to elude Campbell and his wall of defencemen. Holl had four of Toronto’s 14 blocks.


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“(Montreal) was moving it around pretty good, but any time they got a look, we were blocking,” Campbell said.

Keefe doesn’t want the Leafs using Matthews’ three-game absence with a healing wrist as an excuse and made sure to mention in his morning brief how well the team usually performs when the top scorer has been out. The various line changes in practice and exhibitions so far, involving Alex Kerfoot, newcomers Michael Bunting and Michael Amadio were also meant to ease any loss of top-six forwards.

But Engvall, whom Jake Muzzin nicknamed ‘Sea Biscuit’ after the famous thoroughbred race horse, has hit it off with Kampf and winger Kase as a grinder third line. Many thought Engvall was in danger of losing his place as Nick Robertson and Josh Ho-Sang played well early in camp. But he had three pre-season goals and is now seeing special teams’ time, too.


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“I thought our line found the chemistry right away, Engvall said. “Those guys speak Czech on the bench, so I’ll have to learn some. We play it tough in the D zone and used our speed and skill to create offence. We just have to keep it going.”

Kampf is “a great tool for us to have,” Keefe said of his work on faceoffs.
Tavares, the last to be introduced pre-game to the loudest cheer, moved to Matthews’ spot with Marner and newcomer Nick Ritchie. The line had its early chances on Jake Allen, but not until after two power plays floundered and they trailed, did the house get to rock, Engvall scored as an Alexander Romanov penalty was ending, Ritchie providing the screen.

Nylander got loose down the right side on a Morgan Rielly feed and hesitated on his release to beat Allen short side.


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The club mantra through September was not to brush off what happened in the playoffs, but to channel their frustration into something positive.

“Guys were pissed off and we came to camp to work, not just go through the motions,” Muzzin said before the game. “There was a little anger in some guys and we’re going to need that the whole season.”

“All our players have an additional edge to them,” Keefe added. “I’ve been capitalizing on that. The first day of camp was very difficult and taxing on them, but they wanted it that way, to get out in front of that. They’ve come together as a team and been very business-like through camp.”

The coach was also counting on the return of true home-ice advantage Wednesday and going forward.

“We have a number of guys who haven’t played a regular season game in front of their family (including himself),” Keefe reminded. “It’s a big deal. The season is so long, it’s important to have that family connection.”

Keefe was never formally introduced as coach in an opening night gala after replacing Mike Babcock and was touched by the warm reception he received.

“You feel that energy on the bench when the game is so close,” he said. “It was really great to see.”



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