The buildup for this North Division across a locked-down hockey country was roughly equivalent to the anticipation Wayne Simmonds felt prior to making his debut as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not only was he representing his hometown team for the first time, remember, but as a member of the Buffalo Sabres at the end of last season Simmonds didn’t get a chance to play inside the summer bubble.
“That was my first real game action in like 10 months, 28 days and I can probably tell you to the second,” he said Wednesday night.
There was a sense of satisfaction and calm to the veteran winger following a tightly contested 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena — one that earned Simmonds kudos from new teammates for his decision to drop the gloves with Ben Chiarot in the second period after Toronto went down a couple goals.
As for Simmonds, he was just grateful that the Habs defenceman accepted his fight request. And he was clearly thrilled to get back doing what he does.
“I didn’t think he wanted to go at first, but then he dropped the gloves before me so it was green light go,” said Simmonds. “I’m happy he gave me that one.”
There was a stirring sense of occasion to the entire night, even without fans to offer Simmonds and Joe Thornton the warm welcome they’d usually get during the home opener and absent the emotions that inevitably would have spilled out of the stands during a topsy-turvy game that saw Toronto erase 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3 deficits before Morgan Rielly froze the clock in overtime.
We have been hyping the coming together of this Group of Seven for a couple months now and the first taste did more than whet the appetite.
Bring on more of this, all winter long. The Canadiens and Leafs played with an urgency and intensity that belied their short window of preparation. They went at each other for nearly 64 minutes.
“At the end of the third period and starting overtime, there’s guys that were telling us they were cramping up a little bit,” said Habs coach Claude Julien.
“It’s our first time even playing in a warm rink, and at this pace against another team. So, a lot of things the players have to get through, and that’s what happens when you don’t have pre-season games.
“It’s a lot to put on their shoulders here to start.”
Where that showed up most was in defensive posture. At one point the Leafs somehow surrendered two breakaways on the same penalty kill — Tomas Tatar beat Frederik Andersen through the legs on the second — but the miscues only upped the entertainment value.
There were battles for the hard ice, with Habs newcomer Josh Anderson driving hard to the net during a memorable two-goal debut while also taking a knee to the thigh from Auston Matthews.
Matthews was physically engaged throughout, breaking his stick over Chiarot’s arm during one shoving sequence. He also took cross-checks to the back from Chiarot and Shea Weber while standing at the edge of the blue paint and had a long conversation with athletic therapist Paul Ayotte on the bench just before overtime.
He managed to play through the discomfort and earned a second assist on Rielly’s winning goal, getting the puck up to John Tavares who found the defenceman with a perfect feed.
“I think he just took a bit of a stinger,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said of Matthews. “I understand he was OK, he didn’t hesitate when I asked him if he was good to go for overtime.”
What the first one-anthem game played up north reinforced is that all of the pre-season predictions don’t mean much. Montreal carried the play early and forced the Leafs to chase it — forcing Keefe to play Rielly (28:35), Matthews (25:02), Mitch Marner (24:47) and even Thornton (17:30) much more than he’d probably prefer while kicking off this 56-game sprint across Canada.
The Habs could have left with two points if not for some bad luck, including a Weber puck-over-the-glass penalty that resulted in a Tavares goal and a puck that took a member’s bounce off referee Kendrick Nicholson before Jimmy Vesey tied it 4-4 just past the midway point of the third period.
Andersen closed the door after that, outwaiting Phillip Danault on an overtime breakaway and getting across to stop Tyler Toffoli on another excellent chance.
Were the stands full, very few would have sat for the last 10 minutes before Rielly’s winner.
“We miss our fans in such a fun back and forth type of game like this,” said Keefe. “So it would have been nice, of course, to have them here, but we’re going to have to get used to this; this is what we’ve got.
“And hopefully we were able to entertain people at home.”
There’s no doubt about that.
Check your schedules: There are nine (!) more Toronto-Montreal tilts due to be played between now and May 8.
“Can’t wait,” said Simmonds.