The Toronto Maple Leafs 2023-24 season began with a wild 6-5 shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday. Noticeable defensive errors sunk the Leafs in regulation time and the visitors capitalized, but the play of one of the best players on the planet kept the Leafs alive until a thrilling finish. Mitch Marner scored the lone goal in the shootout.
Here are tonight’s observations:
1. Auston Matthews
The hats came down late in the game as Matthews netted the eighth hat trick of his career. He’s a big game player, as if there was any doubt. I thought Matthews’ puck movement was incredibly decisive throughout his 24:32 TOI.
2. John Tavares
Typical stuff from the captain: three assists, two of which were secondary and came on the power play.
3. Mark Giordano
The man just turned 40 and he still summoned the energy to take a flying leap into a heated scuffle between the two teams. He finished in the positive in possession metrics, which isn’t bad either.
Matthews nets No. 300 and then some
Matthews scored goals number 300, 301 and 302 in his career. He kept the Leafs in the game. He’s now scored 26 goals in 32 career games against the Canadiens. His game-tying goal with a little over a minute left in regulation was a reminder that despite what some recent public lists ranking the best players in the league might suggest, Matthews is undoubtedly one of the very best players on the planet.
Still questions about defence
There were a few tough looks from a Leafs blue line that was already a question mark to start the season.
T.J. Brodie will want to forget the opening few minutes of the season. The defenceman fell near the blue line in possession and coughed up the puck to Canadiens centre Jake Evans who scored on a breakaway.
Brodie was acquired by the Leafs to be a stable presence alongside Morgan Rielly and for nearly the entirety of his tenure in Toronto, he has been. During a less-than-ideal playoff run, Brodie didn’t always look like the picture of reliability. Does that mean the 33-year-old’s game is in decline? Hardly. It’s just that the Leafs aren’t rich with defensive blueliners and need Brodie to be at his best all season.
Then there was Jake McCabe’s pinch high up the ice ahead of the Canadiens’ second goal. You could make the case that John Klingberg didn’t handle the ensuing odd-man rush as well as he could have, sure.
And then there was Timothy Liljegren’s giveaway inside his own zone ahead of the Canadiens’ fifth goal.
The line of Tavares-William Nylander–Max Domi didn’t exactly have a banner night defensively, but still: Add it all up and those questions about the blue line probably aren’t going anywhere, for now.
There’s a new goal song! Hurrah!
So it took two periods for fans to finally hear, but the Leafs have a new goal song after five seasons of “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates.
It’s “Pursuit of Happiness (Steve Aoki remix)” by rapper Kid Cudi.
The title alone makes some sense given the Leafs enduring pursuit of a Stanley Cup, right? But “Pursuit of Happiness” features a vibey, atmospheric start that takes a few seconds to build, making for some confused faces around Scotiabank Arena. It doesn’t pop with an iconic opening riff like “You Make My Dreams” did, but it does feel more reflective of a younger crowd.
I could stand to lose the opening three seconds or so of pointless drums, but once “Pursuit of Happiness” did blast off, it filled the arena in a way that “Dreams” didn’t always do.
Kid Cudi doesn’t exactly have plenty of connections to Toronto (Though Drake makes an appearance in the official music video) and as I’ve previously written, it feels like an easy opportunity for the Leafs to honour the great music in the city by choosing a local artist.
Either way, good on the Leafs for making a change. It was long overdue.
Maple Leafs unveil ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ as new goal song
Offence comes around
The Leafs offence took too long to hit their stride, only connecting on passes consistently and getting dangerous looks on goal midway through the second period. Opening night jitters? Multiple new players trying to find their footing and synergy together? Either way, the game changed once the Leafs did start clicking: They outshot the Canadiens 17-2 in the second period and scored three goals in less than 12 minutes.
I personally can’t pick which of Nylander or Matthews’ shots to get the Leafs back in the game were better. And I probably shouldn’t be able to! Each is as dangerous as they come in the NHL and if both play the way they did from the second period onward all season, we’re going to be hearing the Leafs new goal song a lot.
we’re in style pic.twitter.com/vwPZvCI3PJ
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 12, 2023
AUSTON MATTHEWS 🚨
300 CAREER GOALS 🔥 pic.twitter.com/AajKlxqKYd
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) October 12, 2023
Ryan Reaves came as advertised. Acquired to bring some noise off the ice and physicality on it, the brash heavyweight proudly tapped his bicep when he was introduced as a Maple Leaf for the first time, to the delight of the crowd. Midway through his first period as a Leaf, Reaves willingly dropped the gloves with Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj in a quick but spirited tilt. Reaves then tried to jack up the crowd by waving his hands in the air en route to the penalty box.
And, yes, the entire Leafs bench was standing in approval as well.
You can debate what kind of impact he’s going to have on the Leafs scoring chances, sure. Reaves did log a team-low 8:03 TOI. But if you were in attendance on Wednesday night, you probably won’t debate the entertainment value he provides.
Final grade: B-
The Leafs outshot the Canadiens 42-24, and the visitors had few answers for the Leafs best players in their own zone. But it’s tough to win in regulation when you allow five goals on those 24 shots, no? That isn’t to suggest that the game going to a shootout isn’t totally on Ilya Samsonov. But he, and the Leafs entire defensive approach, will need to improve moving forward.
What’s next for the Leafs?
The Leafs host the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, Oct. 14.
(Photo: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)