The Maple Leafs not only lost the first game of their playoff series on Thursday night, but they may have lost their captain John Tavares for an extended stretch.
Paul Byron scored shorthanded late in the third period and the Canadiens held on for a 2-1 victory over Toronto at Scotiabank Arena. It was the first time the forever rivals have met in the post-season in 42 years, and it was a decidedly chippy affair. Pushes turned to shoves and bodies flew.
Tavares was knocked cleanly to the ice on a check by Montreal defenceman Ben Chiarot, with 9:31 left in the first period. As he fell, the Canadiens’ Corey Perry attempted to leap over him, and clipped Tavares on the head with a leg and knee. Tavares’s neck whipped back on impact and he seemed to lose consciousness as he crumbled to the ice.
There were no spectators on hand, and without them, an eerie silence enveloped the arena as the Maple Leafs’ team doctors and athletic therapists rushed to Tavarese’s aide. Soon after that, members of the Canadiens staff joined them. Some teammates stood near as Tavares received medical care. Auston Matthews sat on the bench with his head lowered. Kyle Dubas, the Toronto general manager, rushed downstairs from an executive suite where he was watching the game.
“It was difficult,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs coach, said. “I have experienced a lot of tough injuries as a player and coach, but in an empty arena like that, it was the worst I have ever seen.”
A backboard was brought out, and Tavares was placed on it and then lifted onto a stretcher and wheeled to an ambulance. He was taken to the hospital and, while conscious and communicating, was admitted. More tests will be conducted on Friday morning. Keefe said initial tests for a head injury had come back clear.
Perry skated over to give Tavares a pat before he was taken away, but Toronto players were steaming afterward.
As soon as the puck was dropped after a lengthy delay, Nick Foligno challenged Perry to a fight and both dropped their gloves. Foligno, the former captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets, landed multiple punches before he dragged Perry down.
“You stand up for one another whether it is right or wrong,” Foligno said. “John went down. I didn’t like it.”
Foligno was horrified by what he saw as Tavares laid motionless.
“Life comes into play at that point and just seeing how he was in pain, it made you sick to your stomach,” he said. “The game kind of takes a backseat no matter the circumstances when you see somebody in that much pain and an unfortunate play like it was. I’m hoping he’s okay. I haven’t gotten word yet, but we’re thinking of him and praying for him.”
The game had gotten off to a fast start. Price stopped excellent wrist shots from Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner. Toronto goalie Jack Campbell thwarted a dangerous rush to the net by Josh Anderson. It was the first playoff start for Campbell, who was 17-3-2 while filling in for, and then taking the No. 1 job away from, Frederik Andersen. It was the first time a goalie other than Andersen started in post-season for Toronto since James Reimer in 2013.
Josh Anderson, who had 17 goals during the regular season but none in the last 11 games of the regular season, put the Canadiens ahead on a wrist shot on a breakaway, with 7:52 left in the first. The teams went to their dressing rooms with Montreal up by a 1-0 margin. That gave the Maple Leafs a chance to calm their nerves.
“The players were rattled and concerned,” Keefe said. “It took them a long time to find themselves.”
Price made another difficult save on Marner on a two-on-one early in the second, but shortly after that, William Nylander poked in a rebound from in close to tie the score at 1-1. Byron was sprawling when he won it on a breakaway by flipping a puck over Campbell. Desperate, the rookie defenceman Rasmus Sandin tripped Byron as he neared the net but it was not enough to stop him.
“It looked like he was waiting for me to come out to charge the puck, and I held back and somehow it kind of luckily went up and over my shoulder,” Campbell said. He played well in defeat, stopping 28 of the 30 shots he
Going in, Toronto hadn’t played in six days and Montreal had not played in eight. At any other time, it would have been a madhouse – chants of “Go Leafs Go” and “Ole Ole Oles” filling the air – if not for the restrictions due to COVID-19.
There was plenty of animosity between both sides. Late in the second period, Simmonds and Zach Bogosian each also got after Perry.
Both teams came in at full strength. Zach Hyman and Bogosian returned to the lineup for Toronto after long layoffs due to injuries, and Price, Brendan Gallagher and Shea Weber did the same for Montreal.
Hyman, a gritty winger, sat out the last 11 games of the regular season. Bogosian, who had four assists in 20 playoff games last year when he earned a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, helped shore up the defensive lineup for the opening game. He had sat out the last 10 games.
Sandin, at 21 the youngest player on Toronto’s active roster, made his playoff debut in place of Travis Dermott. He was beaten by Byron on the winning goal, but Joe Thornton fumbled the puck away to start the crucial sequence.
The teams went a combined 0 and 9 on the power play. The Maple Leafs were fortunate to get away with three delay of game infractions for directing the puck over the glass.
Price, who was subpar even when healthy, had played in only two of the last 21 games, and sat out the last 13 of the regular season. He was terrific in the net, stopping 35 shots.
Game 2 in the best-of-seven will take place Saturday night in Toronto. Games 3 and 4 are at the Bell Centre on Monday and Tuesday.
The Leafs will try desperately not to fall down 2-0 in a series where the first to win four moves on. It is likely they will have to do it without Tavares.
“It is a big loss for us,” Keefe said. “He’s our captain. But good teams overcome things like that. We have to play better.”