Leafs launch to first win

Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak gets aggressive in front of the Canadiens net at the Air Canada...

Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak gets aggressive in front of the Canadiens net at the Air Canada Center in Toronto, Ont., Oct. 6, 2011. (VERONICA HENRI/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:44 PM ET

TORONTO - On an opening night when 1967 was in vogue, Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer took a line from the Beatles and got by with a lot of help from his friends.

The first star in a 2-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens was quick to praise his defence for doing the little and big things, namely Dion Phaneuf and his two-point night.

Phaneuf took coach Ron Wilson’s edict for the blueline crew to join the rush, looking like a vintage Dale Earnhardt in car No. 3 racing around the Air Canada Centre ice.

Toronto changed into hard hats come the third period when Montreal put 14 shots on Reimer. The Habs closed out with a 6-on-4 power-play, trying to spoil Toronto's first home opening shutout since Curtis Joseph did it in 2000. Montreal was frustrated by Leafs such as centre David Steckel, the new faceoff wiz, who was 18-for-25 in the dot, while Leafs penalty killers were 5-for-5.

All of these blips on Thursday night put some meaning behind the many off-season promises the Leafs made these past six years out of the playoffs.

“When it’s there I’m going to jump in,” said Phaneuf, who scored his first goal a full two months ahead of the time he did last year. “But off the draw we did a really good job, Steckel, Tyler Bozak and Philippe Dupuis. Starting with the puck helps. And when they got through, (Reimer) was there.”

Reimer was good and a bit lucky in the early going, making 32 saves overall. He was quick to spread the love around after the game.

“It’s 1/20th my responsibility out there,” he said. “It’s unbelieveable how they (Leafs) were getting in front of shots and pucks. They really wanted to win and I was just having fun.

“We did all the little things right, forechecked hard, the defencemen had a great gap, we won draws ... we’ve been coached really well the past couple of weeks. They’ve really given us the tools and it showed tonight.

“That’s huge to have a guy like Steckel. You have confidence he’ll pull it out on faceoff nine times out of ten and when he doesn’t, he’ll battle hard and maybe one of our wingers will get it.”

Phaneuf was right on the tail of forwards Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, blasting a high slap shot past Carey Price in the third period. In the second, Phanuef helped ignite the 2-on-1 that led to Matthew Lombardi’s heart-warming short-handed goal, his first tally in a calendar year.

Lombardi kept hanging around the net after the 2-on-1 and buried his first goal since April of 2010 when he was with the Phoenix Coyotes. The goal also comes seven days shy of a year since suffering his career-threatening injury as a Nashville Predator.

But while they raised the Stanley Cup in Boston, they didn’t exactly raise hell at the ACC prior to the game.

Lukewarm opening ceremonies were noteworthy for the boos that filtered down for old fan culprits Wilson and Mike Komisarek, to the surprising cheers for the quietly effective Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.

“We were obvioulsy tight in the first period,” Wilson said, a great example being Montreal’s opening dump in that nearly resulted in catastrophe with a wandering Reimer and his defence. “But we didn’t panic (outshot 16-6), we just talked about making simple plays, banging it off the boards, putting it in behind their defence so we could get our legs going.

“Montreal plays a classic trap, putting a lot of sticks in the middle of the rink. We hit a lot of them and it gummed us up.”

Wilson doesn’t want his defence taking too much liberty with the puck and it was interesting that rookie roadrunner Jake Gardiner played it conservative most of the night. Partner Komisarek dished out enough hits to keep their slate clean most of the game. The fluid defenceman John-Michael Liles played solidly in his Toronto debut, except for an early cross-checking penalty and some confusion directing traffic on a second-period 5-on-3 power-play.

But Phaneuf exploited some holes.

“We’re encouraging that,” Wilson said, but repeated he thinks too much is made of Phaneuf’s frequent gaps on the scoresheet. “He played really well defensively, yet he’s supposed to score for some reason, and if he doesn’t he’s not a good player. I’m glad he did to silence those people who criticize him. He’s here to stop the other team from scoring.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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