TORONTO — William Nylander scored the winner early in the third period and Jack Campbell made 31 saves as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in the season-opener for both teams Wednesday.
Pierre Engvall had the other goal for Toronto in front of 18,493 masked and fully vaccinated fans at Scotiabank Arena — the venue’s first regular-season crowd since March 10, 2020, because of COVID-19.
Jonathan Drouin replied for Montreal. Jake Allen stopped 28 shots for the Canadiens, whose surprising run to last season’s Stanley Cup final included that stunning comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Leafs in the first round.
Toronto was minus No. 1 centre Auston Matthews, who led the NHL with 41 goals in just 52 games during the NHL’s pandemic-shorted 2021-22 campaign, because of a wrist injury that hasn’t fully healed from surgery, while star winger Mitch Marner dressed after leaving Tuesday’s practice early following a collision with teammate Wayne Simmonds.
Montreal started life in earnest without captain and bruising defenceman Shea Weber due to potentially career-threatening ankle and foot injuries that will keep him sidelined this season, while goaltender Carey Price entered the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program last week and will be away from the team until at least early November.
It was a summer of change and turnover for the Canadiens as the club dressed just 13 of the 20 players who suited up in Game 5 of the club’s Cup defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning in July.
Nylander snapped a 1-1 tie 66 seconds into the third when he took a pass from Morgan Rielly off the rush before faking a slapshot and firing upstairs on Allen’s shortside.
Montreal had a terrific opportunity to get back even with a 5-on-3 power play for 1:44, but the Leafs survived thanks to a shot block by Justin Holl with Brendan Gallagher staring at a wide-open net.
The Canadiens got another man-advantage chance with under nine minutes to go in regulation when Nylander went off for tripping, but once again came up empty as Toronto held on late.
Fans of both teams milled about Toronto’s downtown core in the hours before puck drop, including near the atrium off Maple Leaf Square that was used as a COVID-19 testing site for arena staff, team employees and media last season.
The 48th Highlanders, who have performed at every Toronto curtain-raiser since Maple Leaf Gardens opened in 1931, kept the tradition alive virtually last season, and were back Wednesday with their pipes and drums on the ice prior to warmups.
With a group of front-line workers in attendance, Hamilton-based Arkells rocked out in a pre-recorded performance outside the Leafs’ locker room before anthem singer Martina Ortiz Luis encouraged fans to take over the singing of O Canada with Scotiabank Arena full for the first time in 582 days.
While the crowd, which was short of a sellout, was ready to go, the home side certainly wasn’t early as Montreal had five excellent scoring chances in the game’s first three minutes on the razor-sharp Campbell.
The Canadiens eventually jumped in front at 7:22 of the first when Drouin, who stepped away from the team in April because of anxiety and insomnia, scored off a 2-on-1 rush after Toronto turned the puck over at the offensive blue line.
The Leafs would finally get in gear, and Engvall scored the first power-play goal of his career at 10:12 when he fired past Allen.
Montreal’s goaltender was then bailed out by the iron twice, including late in the period on a deflected Rasmus Sandin effort that rang off the crossbar.
Toronto kept up the pressure in the second, with Engvall and Nylander coming close before newly acquired Ondrej Kase couldn’t find the range on two great chances.
Montreal’s Nick Suzuki then forced a big pad save out of Campbell to send the teams to the locker rooms tied 1-1 through 40 minutes before Nylander nudged the Leafs in front just over a minute into the third.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press