TORONTO — Paul Byron scored the short-handed winner from his knees with under eight minutes left in regulation and Carey Price made 35 saves as the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 on Thursday in the opener of a much-anticipated first-round playoff series between Original Six rivals.
Josh Anderson had the other goal for Montreal, which finished 18 points back of first-place Toronto in the NHL’s one-off Canadian-based North Division during the pandemic-shortened regular season.
William Nylander replied for the Leafs, who got 28 stops from Jack Campbell in his playoff debut.
With Tomas Tatar off in the box for high-sticking and the Leafs looking to take the lead, Byron raced passed rookie defenceman Rasmus Sandin, who tried to drag the Montreal forward down, before roofing a shot upstairs on Campbell with 7:46 remaining in the third period.
A physical, intense start was brought to a standstill midway through the first when Leafs captain John Tavares was involved in a scary collision and had to be stretchered off the ice.
Meeting in the post-season for the first time since 1979, the storied franchises now turn their attention to Game 2 of the best-of-seven matchup, which goes Saturday back at Scotiabank Arena.
The Canadiens got a boost with the return of Price (concussion), captain Shea Weber (upper-body injury) and Brendan Gallagher (broken thumb). The Leafs, meanwhile, had defenceman Zach Bogosian (upper-body injury) back in the lineup, while centre Riley Nash (knee) made his Toronto debut after being acquired prior to the trade deadline.
Tavares was injured at 10:29 of the first after taking an initial hit from Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot in the neutral zone that felled Toronto’s captain before he took an accidental knee to the face from on-rushing Montreal winger Corey Perry.
Trainers and doctors from both teams rushed to attend to the veteran forward, encouraging him to stay on the ice as he struggled to get up. Tavares, who was taken to hospital, offered a thumbs up as he was stretchered off inside an empty and silent Scotiabank Arena.
Although the injury was unintentional, Perry dropped the gloves with Leafs winger Nick Foligno as soon as play resumed.
Montreal seemed to push the shock of the Tavares injury aside fastest and grabbed the lead at 12:08 when Anderson split Bogosian and Sandin before moving in alone and firing in off Campbell’s post.
Without a playoff series win since 2004, the Leafs ended the period on a power play, but Price was bailed out by one of his posts on a shot by NHL goal leader Auston Matthews.
Toronto, which had defenceman Jake Muzzin stretchered off in last summer’s post-season bubble, tied it up at 4:28 of the second on a sequence that started with a terrific Foligno forecheck. Morgan Rielly’s point shot hit a body in front and fell to Nylander, who slid his shot past Price.
Nylander had a great chance to put the home side in front on another power play later in the period, but could only find iron.
Campbell, who got the start ahead of Frederik Andersen following a record-breaking campaign, then denied Tyler Toffoli with his glove on another Montreal man advantage before Joel Armia sailed a backhand up high and wide.
Rielly blocked an Anderson chance early in the third with Campbell out of position before the Leafs killed off a Mitch Marner penalty for delay of game.
Nylander took another delay of game penalty _ Toronto’s third of the night _ a couple of minutes later, but Toronto survived once again. Marner was then robbed by Price’s blocker with the netminder at full stretch on a 2-on-1 with Nylander before Byron buried the winner.
Toronto got a power play with 3:18 left when Phillip Danault was whistled for tripping, but Price stopped Nylander from the slot and Zach Hyman from in close with Campbell on the bench for an extra attacker before the visitors closed it out despite more pressure at 6 on 5.
The vibe outside Scotiabank Arena was nothing like the leadup to a normal playoff series — especially between two legacy organizations — as COVID-19 restrictions continue to keep fans in Canada from attending in person.
Maple Leaf Square, normally a gathering spot for rabid crowds to watch games on a massive outdoor screen, had just a few jersey-clad fans milling about a couple of hours before puck drop.
Teams in the U.S. have all had some spectators at their playoffs games, and the Canadiens have been given the green light by Quebec’s government to allow 2,500 fans into the Bell Centre for Game 6 if the series goes that far.
Thursday’s tilt was the first in the post-season between the teams in 42 years, and opened just the third head-to-head series since the NHL started to expand back in 1967 after Toronto beat Montreal to secure the franchise’s last Stanley Cup.