Not every game in an NHL team’s regular season can be a spirited, emotional affair. But on Saturday at Air Canada Centre, there was no absence of passion between the Maple Leafs and their arch-rivals from Montreal – and with Leafs legend Dave Keon in the building for a pre-game ceremony in front of a raucous crowd, the Buds rebounded from a 2-0 deficit to earn a point in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Canadiens.
“It was really good,” Leafs goalie James Reimer said of the overall vibe in the ACC. “The fans got into it and that always makes it a lot more fun, gets us energized, gets us going. When the barn’s rockin’ like it was tonight, that’s fun hockey to play.”
“The atmosphere was great, the pre-game stuff was awesome, I was glad to be a part of that,” added winger Joffrey Lupul, whose 11th goal of the year evened the score early in the third period. “The crowd was great the whole game, their fans and ours, it was just a fun atmosphere out there.
That said, the Leafs had to overcome one of their worst starts of the season – the Habs out-shot them 14-3, and Toronto’s first official shot on net didn’t come until nearly 12 minutes into the game – to earn a point. After being given Friday off to conserve energy, their flat beginning to Saturday’s contest left a bitter taste in the mouth of head coach Mike Babcock.
“I thought (Reimer) was good, I thought we were poor,” Babcock said. “We gave them yesterday off, we won’t be doing that again. We weren’t ready to go, we didn’t compete hard.”
The Canadiens built their two-goal lead on markers from David Desharnais and Tomas Fleischmann, but a much more resilient Leafs team emerged for the second and third periods, and Toronto finished with 19 shots on net. It was the type of rebound that the Buds had become known for under Babcock’s tenure, until a five-game losing skid earlier in January saw them abandon their structure and dig holes they couldn’t climb out from.
“I think we showed a lot of character, playing much better in the second and third,” said winger P-A Parenteau. “I think for five games there, we got a little bit unlucky, but we didn’t have the same resilience. It’s nice to have that fight-back, that attitude, that’s going to get us wins down the road.”
“We didn’t do as good of a job as we would’ve liked today (in the first),” added Lupul. “You have to give credit to them, too; they played like a desperate team right at the start, and came out and they put a ton of pressure on us in our own end, and we were unable to break out clean. But we had a chat in here after the first, and we really turned it around, so that’s a good thing.”
Prior to the game between the two Original Six teams, Keon and the families of fellow icons Tim Horton and Turk Broda appeared at centre ice to be honored as part of the players’ induction into Legends Row outside Air Canada Centre. In addition, Keon made an appearance in the Leafs dressing room and interacted with the squad earlier in the morning. That nod to history was welcomed by Leafs players.
“The whole thing was really cool,” Lupul said. “I know a little bit of the backstory about how (Keon) hasn’t been around here, and for him to come in here this morning and say hi to all the guys and then have the great ceremony for all three of them, that was a cool day.”
Still, if Toronto is intent on getting back into the win column, they’ll need to reverse their habit of allowing the first goal of the night. Babcock pointed to the fact the team’s best line was their fourth line of Rich Clune, Daniel Winnik and Byron Froese as an indictment of the effort of the rest of the forwards.
“You get embarrassed when you’re getting outworked that bad and you’re not competing hard,” Babcock said. “Froese and Clune, that line was the best line, they’re not supposed to be the best line. They’re allowed to be the hardest-working line; they’re not allowed to be the best line.”