TORONTO - You have to begin with hope.
That’s what a new season is always about.
Never mind the quiet cynicism early on at the Air Canada Centre. Never mind the pre-game booing of coach Ron Wilson and his pet reclamation project, Mike Komisarek.
By night’s end, by the time the opening of the season was complete, three of the most important Maple Leafs had turned the evening around and there was reason for celebration.
You could feel it in the Maple Leafs dressing room late on a Thursday night.
There was joy, relief and excitement, in no particular order. There was Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of the board, standing in the middle of the room, shaking hands with any Leafs player who was available to shake back. “One down,” another board member beside him shouted, “81 more to go.”
There was that giddy, celebratory feel to an opening-night win over the Montreal Canadiens. You could hear it in the third-period noise, see it in all the action in the dressing room following the game. There was Brian Burke escorting those in Leaf jerseys around the back of the dressing room, the highest-paid tour guide in hockey.
There was other fans, somehow in the room, taking pictures with their cellphones, having their photos taken with James Reimer, who sat at his locker long after his teammates had moved on.
He had reason to take his time. On opening night, with all the hockey senses heightened, Reimer was typically Reimer. He was calm, smiling, and in the end, the collector of a opening-game shutout. He did his part. The way he always has since joining the Leafs. Captain Dion Phaneuf managed the huge goal of the night, one-timing a soft Phil Kessel pass to close the score at 2-0. The Leafs being at their hockey-cliched best: Their best players Thursday night were, in fact, playing their best.
Reimer in goal. Kessel up front. Phaneuf, from the backend, working his way into the rush The big three — with apologies to Mikhail Grabovski.
The captain, the enigmatic one and the goalie who doesn’t stopped smiling, all doing their part for a team that iced a make-shift lineup on what easily could have been a Game 1 defeat.
“Encouraging,” Phaneuf called it, talking about his team, not the Calgary-like rocket slapshot that crashed off the crossbar past Carey Price to provide Toronto with an insurmountable two-goal lead.
“I’m glad it was him and not me,” said Reimer, talking of Price. Reimer doesn’t care much to face Phaneuf’s slapshot in practice. “I just get out of the way.”
Thursday night, the Leafs got out of the way of themselves in beating Montreal. They played a dull and slow and unmemorable first period to start the season, but found enough energy and grit in the second half of the game to take control.
But once Matthew Lombardi scored shorthanded — and that by itself is the comeback stuff movies are made of — the Leafs seemed to take over. When asked when the last time he cashed in on a slapshot goal the way he managed in the second period, Phaneuf said: “I can’t remember ... It felt good to get that one. Phil put it on a tee for me.”
Phaneuf played a part in Lombardi’s goal, scored the second goal, tried to put one in the empty net that would have started his campaign with a three-point night.
“I can’t talk about myself,” said Reimer. “I thought all the other guys played great and played hard.” He could have started with his captain and with the speedy winger who can be great and then not be.
“When (Phil) moves his feet that well, he’s dangerous,” said Reimer. “I thought he was great tonight.”
Kessel thought Reimer was great. Reimer thought Phaneuf was great. Phaneuf thought Kessel was great. A mutual-admiration society on opening night.
That’s the way it’s going to have to be for these talent-challenged Leafs. They’ll need some of that quality penalty killing from David Steckel and Lombardi, a little bit of good fortune that ended up with Lombardi scoring, but mostly, they’ll need Reimer and Phaneuf and Kessel to carry this team.
If they are to be carried anywhere.
“It was a little like the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight,” said coach Ron Wilson, his analogy circumstantial but a little off when it comes to perspective. “They were pounding away at us, then we took them out.”
It wasn’t that kind of stunning drama.
But it was a win. It was a reason for hope. Now, suddenly, Saturday can’t come soon enough.