TORONTO – Borje Salming shook hands with every member of the Maple Leafs as he slowly departed the ice.
Robbed of his speech and some mobility following a devastating ALS diagnosis, the Hall of Fame defenceman was honoured for a second straight emotional night in a city where the Swede is still adored.
It was a moment the players won’t soon forget.
And after a sluggish opening, they put in a performance that surely made the franchise icon proud.
Jordie Benn scored the winner in his Leafs debut Saturday as Toronto came back from an early 2-0 deficit to defeat the Vancouver Canucks 3-2.
Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — in August, the 71-year-old Salming received another raucous welcome with family by his side as a video chronicling his career played on the scoreboard before puck drop after also taking part in Friday’s Hall of Fame game festivities.
“Those ceremonies are much-needed,” Benn said. “He’s a special person and a special player, and obviously special to Toronto. Those ones are hard to get through. It’s definitely a tear-jerker.”
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe started all six of his Swedish players as part of the tribute, with Leafs winger William Nylander and Canucks defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson performing the ceremonial faceoff.
Toronto sniper Auston Matthews, who scored the tying goal in the second period, said the ceremonies Friday and Saturday night “hits you hard.”
“To just see how a guy like Borje was embraced by the fans and just what he did for this organization in his time here and what he still means to the city, I think that puts a lot of things into perspective for us as players playing here,” he said.
“To have guys like him and others that have paved the way for us, it means a lot. You could just see it and feel it.”
Pierre Engvall rounded out the scoring for Toronto (8-5-3), while Erik Kallgren — another Swede — made 28 saves in his second start in as many nights after the Leafs lost 4-2 at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.
“Big win,” said Kallgren, who fell on his sword 24 hours earlier. “A big night in many ways.”
Keefe, who flipped Mitch Marner and William Nylander on his top two lines, wasn’t disappointed with Toronto’s play despite the early hole, but knew there more to give in the second.
“We had an increase in just about everything,” Keefe said. “Our pace, our work rate, our battle level, the energy in the building.”
Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller replied for Vancouver (4-8-3). Spencer Martin stopped 32 shots for the struggling Canucks, who blew their sixth multi-goal lead of the season.
“We played an unbelievable first,” Horvat said. “Every time we take 10 minutes off, it just kills us.”
Down by that 2-0 margin after an opening 20 minutes where they couldn’t get out of second gear, the Leafs cut the visitors’ lead in half when Matthews ripped his seventh of the campaign upstairs on a power play 1:46 after the restart.
Engvall added his second on a scramble at 6:27 as Toronto kept up the pressure before Benn, who injured his groin in pre-season and entered the lineup for the ailing T.J. Brodie, pinched down from his defensive position to score against his former team at 10:01 and spark a jubilant celebration.
“It doesn’t happen too often,” Benn said in the wake of his first goal since January. “Didn’t really know what to do. Thank God (Matthews) came and I was just like, ‘all right, here’s a hug.'”
Vancouver opened the scoring at 3:41 of the first when Horvat tipped his 13th past Kallgren, who made his eighth appearance of 2022-23 with Matt Murray (groin/abductor) and Ilya Samsonov (knee) sidelined. Keefe said before the game Murray is targeting Tuesday in Pittsburgh for his return.
Miller then put the visitors up two on a power play at 12:11 when he fired his eighth through a screen.
But Toronto responded with a 10-minute flurry in the second to flip the script on Salming’s night.
“Really wanted to win,” Kallgren said. “Really wanted to come up with a good performance. It was a very nice ceremony and emotional, but when the puck dropped it was game on.”
BRUCE ON BORJE
Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau spent parts of seven seasons with the Leafs when Salming was at his best.
“He could play 28 minutes a night or 30 minutes a night,” Boudreau said following Saturday’s morning skate. “And the next night do the same thing. He was in unbelievable (shape).”
Boudreau recalled the game he registered his only NHL hat trick in December 1977. Salming assisted on all three goals and set up two others.
“Incredible player,” he added of his former roommate. “It’s hard to describe in today’s world what he would be like or to compare him to somebody today.”
Leafs: Visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Canucks: Visit Boston on Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2022.
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