PAINFUL START: Maple Leafs lose captain John Tavares, Game 1

Star forward leaves on stretcher

The Maple Leafs knew there would be abrupt emotion swings in these playoffs, surely at least one significant injury and moments of shock that required the bench to shake off and keep focus.

They just never thought the first such test would come just 10 minutes into an eventual Game 1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

The storyline of two old rivals meeting for the first time in a decade in the Stanley Cup tournament quickly pivoted to concern for the health of Toronto captain John Tavares.

The centre was stretchered off the ice to the hospital after a nasty, but accidental collision with Habs’ forward Corey Perry. The rattled Leafs never really looked in control afterwards, but didn’t help their cause with penalties and giving up a short-handed winner in the third.

First to Tavares, whom coach Sheldon Keefe was relieved to say was “conscious and communicating well” in hospital where he was to be kept overnight for observation. “The tests so far have come back clear.”

At the 10:29 mark of the first, Tavares twisted to avoid the worst of a Ben Chariot hit, but as he landed on his rump and spun around, he put himself in the path of Perry who was racing up ice. Perry tried to avoid him, but his knee rammed Tavares’s head. The latter was prone on his stomach for a few moments, was helped up to a sitting position before collapsing in a daze again, while bleeding.

Trainers, doctors on both teams and paramedics rushed out to the scene at the Toronto blue line. Tavares gave a thumbs-up just as the stretcher reached the exit gate, after Perry skated over to give him a pat before he was taken to the ambulance. In the Leafs management box, TV cameras showed an anxious Kyle Dubas, while both benches looked on in the silent Scotiabank Arena.

“You just hope he’s OK,” Mitch Marner said of surveying the scene. “It’s scary to see that (stretcher) come out. He’s got family, he’s got kids.”

The Leafs, at least Nick Foligno, wanted to hear nothing of an apology from Perry, as Foligno went after him in the next whistle in a spirited, but rather pointless fight.

“Our captain is laying on the ice, nothing more than that,” Foligno said of taking up arms. “Perry obliged. It’s unfortunate. (The hit) wasn’t malicious, but it’s our captain. They would do the same if it was their captain. It’s a matter of answering and being done with it. It takes out the grey (area), allows us to go play hockey.”

The Leafs couldn’t get back to their script and were stuck not only having to rotate centres for Tavares, but being in the box too often to disrupt 5-on-5 play.

Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly is checked by Joel Armia of the Montreal Canadiens during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series in Toronto on Thursday, May 20, 2021. CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES
Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly is checked by Joel Armia of the Montreal Canadiens during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series in Toronto on Thursday, May 20, 2021. CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

With their power play still struggling, Joe Thornton lost a puck that Paul Byron eventually out-raced Rasmus Sandin to with a diving poke over Jack Campbell. Three Toronto penalties were for delay of game.

“That’s obviously not what you expect in a playoff game,” Keefe said. “You have to adjust.”

The Leafs just couldn’t channel their frustration the right way the rest of the period after Tavares left. Eric Staal found Josh Anderson down the middle between Zach Bogosian and Sandin and he buried the breakaway.

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Not until the next period, after Toronto killed a marginal delay of game call on Justin Holl did Foligno camp in Carey Price’s crease as a distraction to give William Nylander room for a goal. But Price made 35 saves in the win.

After 10 games of regular-season play, there were few mysteries for either team, other than would all the injuries on both sides heal by Thursday. But first line winger Brendan Gallagher accelerated his return from a broken thumb, defenceman Shea Weber and his heavy shot got healthy and Price shook the last of the cobwebs from a concussion.

The Leafs also had top line winger Zach Hyman back from a sprained knee, finally got to debut trade deadline acquisition Riley Nash at third line centre. Bogosian, looking for his second straight Cup, also came back from an upper body injury just in time.

The Leafs also had top-line winger Zach Hyman back from a sprained knee, finally got to debut trade deadline acquisition Riley Nash at third-line centre. Bogosian, looking for his second straight Cup, also came back from an upper-body injury just in time.

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It led to some hair-splitting decisions for both coaches, Keefe to shelve the team’s best comeback story, winger Alex Galchenyuk and Dominique Ducharme to send diminutive rookie sniper Cole Caufield to the seats. If Tavares is gone any length of time, the Leafs have big Pierre Engvall or Adam Brooks to put in at centre for Game 2 Saturday or employ Galchenyuk on the wing and move someone else.

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Keefe agreed that the last change afforded him with home ice advantage was great to have in his back pocket, but he wouldn’t necessarily lay it on the table.

Phillip Danault, who centres Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, has proven a handful for Matthews this season, which could influence Keefe at some stages of this best-of-seven.

“It’s a factor, but I don’t know if it’s huge in this series with the way the lines match up,” Keefe said Thursday morning. “I don’t feel the need to protect Auston from anybody. He and Marner and Hyman need to take on the most difficult match-ups. That’s important for our team.”

lhornby@postmedia.com