Toronto - October 9, 2014 - In the first game of the 2014/2015 NHL Regular Season, the two biggest hockey teams in the league squared off. The Toronto Maple Leafs and The Montreal Canadiens kicked off the season tonight in a fashion that must have NHL executives across the league ecstatic. The Canadiens came out on top in a fast paced, back and forth game that had fans on the edge of their seat. In the end Montreal potted late winner during what was a frantic third period which saw a goal for each team in the final 2:19. With forty-three seconds to go, Tomas Plekanec scored the game winner to lift the Habs to a 4-3 win over the Leafs.
Despite the loss tonight, there were a number of bright spots for the team wearing Blue and White, namely in the play of some of their youngest players. Brandon Kozun and Stuart Percy both exceeded expectations, as both collected points in what was the first game of their NHL careers.
Kozun played the right wing on Toronto’s second line alongside centerman Nazem Kadri and left winger Joffrey Lupul. It’s only been one game but this line has the potential to be one of the most exciting second lines in the league. The pure skill and speed combination of the three has the potential to not only score, but cause turnovers in the offensive and neutral zones. Kozun managed to hit the scoresheet when his shot from the slot was tipped home by Kadri. The one concern with this line, not surprisingly, is their play in the defensive zone and because of that…the defensive pairing who has the responsibility of babysitting them will play a key role in their success and/or failure.
The surprise of the evening though was Percy. Selected twenty-fifth overall in the 2011 Entry Draft, the twenty-one year old native of Oakville Ontario looked calm beyond his years during his debut. Playing with Roman Polak, Stephane Robidas and Dion Phaneuf throughout the evening in a variety of situations, Percy actually led the Leafs defence in ice time at the end of the first period. Percy also netted his first point with a feed to Tyler Bozak on the Leafs second goal late in the first period.
The final notable positive for the Leafs was the play of their depth lines, in particular the third line of Leo Komarov, Mike Santorelli and David Clarkson. The third and fourth lines saw considerable ice time and were effective at keeping the puck in Montreal’s end of the rink, eventually resulting in Morgan Riley’s tying goal with under two and half minutes to play in the third. The lack of depth play was perhaps the biggest drain on the Leafs down the stretch last year, so this improved play should make Leaf faithful happy. The fact that the third line can now be put on the ice with under three minutes to play during the final period of play in which Toronto are losing, and then score to tie the game should make everyone very happy.
Having said all that, the first line was a huge disappointment. For the vast majority of the game, the trio of James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel were completely ineffective. The frustration of their play was only compounded by their complete ineptitude on the power play. They consistently failed to enter the Canadiens zone, and often gave the puck up in the neutral zone, robbing themselves of creating real scoring opportunities. Bozak’s first period goal was more the result of Percy’s solo effort than the play of the top line. While their play during the season opener was disappointing, it is unreasonable to expect the play of Kessel and JVR to stay at this level. They will improve.
It is also worth noting that despite a rocky start, goaltender Jonathan Bernier’s play late in the game was excellent, bailing out the Leafs inability to exit their own zone on multiple occasions.
As for the defence core, the Dion Phaneuf - Robidas pairing appears to be an upgrade, while the bottom four looked good but were far from great. While an opening night loss to the Montreal Canadiens was not exactly the fashion in which Toronto Maple Leafs fans were hoping the season would start, they clearly will have more than a few reasons to get excited for the remaining eighty-one games on the schedule.
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