TORONTO – Morgan Rielly had a goal and two assists, Alexander Kerfoot scored twice, and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 in their exhibition matchup Tuesday as the NHL’s restart to its pandemic-hit 2019-20 season got into full swing.
Ilya Mikheyev had the other goal for the Leafs, who got 28 saves from Frederik Andersen. Thomas Tatar and Paul Byron replied for the Canadiens. Carey Price stopped 19 shots for Montreal.
The Canadiens open their best-of-five qualifying round series against the heavily-favoured Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday — the first day the games will truly matter — before the Leafs do the same 24 hours later against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Mikheyev, who suffered a gruesome wrist laceration in late December, scored just 33 seconds into his first game back inside a cavernous Scotiabank Arena as the league resumed action without fans after shuttering operations in mid-March because of COVID-19.
Kerfoot made it 2-0 at 6:46 of the second when he roofed a rebound after Kasperi Kapanen was stopped on a shorthanded breakaway.
Tatar got one back for Montreal with 3:04 left in the second on a power play off a nice feed from Nick Suzuki, but Kerfoot tipped Rielly’s shot past Price late in the period to make it 3-1. Leafs rookie Nick Robertson, who was making his NHL debut after a 55-goal season in the Ontario Hockey League, picked up the second assist.
Byron made it 3-2 at 8:07 of the third, but Rielly restored the two-goal lead 1:22 later with Toronto’s second shorthanded goal of the night.
“We’re trying to get back to game shape, all that stuff, we’re trying to get back and we don’t have much time,” said Jonathan Drouin, Habs forward. “We gotta get ready for Saturday and make sure we’re way more detailed, way more on the puck than we were yesterday.”
Read more: Ouellet says he tested positive for COVID-19
The first-ever July meeting in the franchises’ 103-year rivalry, things were made even stranger by the fact Montreal was designated as the home team and occupied the Leafs’ dressing room at Scotiabank Arena. Toronto, meanwhile, wore its road whites and used the visitors bench for the first time in the building’s 21-year history.
After the game, players admitted that the new system is odd.
“2020’s been strange,” said Canadiens Forward Brendan Gallagher. “That might have been the strangest thing we’ve been through.”
Roughly a dozen rows of seats up from the glass were tarped off in the spectator-less venue, while eight separate screens were suspended from the ceiling, adding a video game-like feel as both teams played a game for the first time in 140 days.
While television viewers were treated to artificial crowd noise, media seated in the upper bowl could hear almost every word uttered on the ice — including a couple of expletives — which is why the NHL has implemented a five-second delay on broadcasts. One particularily loud curse word bellowed in the second period, however, got past censors.
Music blared as the players, who are staying inside the NHL’s tightly-controlled bubble that includes the Fairmont Royal York a short walk away, hit the ice for warmups with only journalists, arena employees and league staff looking on. One member of the Leafs let out a giant “wooooo,” while Toronto winger Mitch Marner kept up his pre-game tradition by pretending to throw a puck over the glass to an imaginary fan after warmups.
Players from both teams stood side-by-side on the blue line for the national anthem as a show of solidarity with social justice movements which, like the pandemic, have been front of mind since hockey was last played in North America.
The Eastern Conference clubs are situated in the Toronto hub as part of the 24-team restart, while the West has been centralized in Edmonton.
With the Canadiens designated as the home side, Coldplay’s “Fix You” rang out around the building as the teams took to the ice before Mikheyev finished off a 2-on-1 with John Tavares on the game’s first shot.
Among the extensive healthy and safety measures, cleaning crews wiped down both benches between periods, while trainers and the maintenance crews wore masks. Independent media members, who are outside the league bubble, were spaced out in the third level and underwent temperature checks upon arrival at the arena.
There was barely any contact in the only exhibition contest for both teams until Toronto defenceman Jake Muzzin thumped Montreal winger Alex Belzile to the ice early in the second. Belzile, who has never played an NHL regular-season or playoff game, left for the locker room and did not return.
The offensively-loaded Leafs looked disjointed much of the night, but neither team was helped by sloppy ice conditions in the second game of the day in humid Toronto.
Habs head coach said on Wednesday that he isn’t going to be too harsh on the team, after their performance on Tuesday.
“When I look at our team, when I look at the team we played against — when I look at the game I watched before, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, everything’s the same,” said Claude Julien. “There’s a little bit of rust in their play and like anybody else, it’s just a matter of — can we get better? And that’s what we have to do here to be successful.”
Montreal was all but buried as the NHL’s 24th-ranked team when the schedule was suspended 4 1/2 months ago because of the virus, but was handed a lifeline when the league settled on a 24-team restart plan. Toronto sat in a playoff spot, but because it sat outside the top-4 in the conference, has to go through Columbus to make the usual 16-club playoff bracket.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2020.
–With files from Felicia Parillo
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter