TORONTO – Ten seconds left. One-goal game. And here was Brian Gionta(notes), captain of the Montreal Canadiens, with the puck on his stick right smack dab in front of the net. Had Gionta scored, it would have been easy to imagine another sad snowball for the Toronto Maple Leafs – another blown lead turning into a loss, another loss turning into a bad start, another bad start turning into a bad season.
But Gionta didn’t score, and suddenly it became easier to believe that something is different about these Leafs. Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes) lay his left pad on the ice. He stuffed Gionta once, twice. Then he absorbed a final shot from defenseman P.K. Subban(notes) as the horn sounded, the crowd roared at Air Canada Centre and the Leafs held on for a season-opening 3-2 victory Thursday night.
“This is probably one that last year we’d get tied against in the last minute,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said, “and because of a couple of his great saves, we ended up preserving the win.”
When the Leafs’ dressing room opened to the media afterward, most of the players had cleared out, leaving Giguere, the game’s first star, as the center of attention for the onrushing horde of reporters.
“I think we’re really excited about this one,” Giguere said. “We wanted to kind of push away the start from last year. A lot of people – you guys – talked to us about it in the last few days, and we were aware of it. It’s important to start on the right foot. It’s only one game, but it’s a good sign for us.”
The Leafs held a 3-2 third-period lead over the Habs at home in last season’s opener, too. But they let it slip away and lost in overtime, 4-3. Wilson said that after a promising preseason “it just popped our balloon.” The Leafs lost their next seven games, all in regulation, all but destroying their chances less than 10 percent into the season. They missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
But of the 19 men who played for the Leafs in last season’s opener, only six played for them Thursday night. And of all the new additions made by general manager Brian Burke, the biggest difference-maker was Giguere, a 33-year-old trying to prove he still can play at a championship level.
Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in 2003, even though the Ducks failed to win the Cup. Without him, they never would have reached the brink, the seventh game of the final versus the New Jersey Devils. He won the Cup with the Ducks in ’07, when Burke was their GM and they defeated the Ottawa Senators. He put up outstanding numbers the next season, ranking second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.12) and third in save percentage (.924).
Then he lost his job to Jonas Hiller(notes) in 2008-09. Just like that, he went from dominant to having something to prove. When Burke acquired him Jan. 31 – for center Jason Blake(notes) and goaltender Vesa Toskala(notes), who, by the way, started for the Leafs in last season’s opener – he got an opportunity to do it.
“I’m not that old, people,” Giguere said with a laugh. “I want to show everybody that I can still play. I feel good. I have lots of energy. These young guys give me energy every day, so it’s fun to come to the rink. It’s a new challenge for me.”
There is no reason why Giguere cannot be a No. 1 goaltender again at his age. His game is not about athleticism and making acrobatic saves. It’s about hard work and smart positioning.
That doesn’t mean the Leafs don’t need to manage Giguere carefully, though. They need to give backup Jonas Gustavsson(notes) some experience – he turns 26 on Oct. 24 and has played only 42 NHL games – and they need to give Giguere the right balance of rest and work.
“Ideally, he’s got to be in a situation where he’s only going to be called upon 45-to-50 times,” Wilson said. “That’s when he plays his best. He’s strongest when he gets good practices in. That’s what our goal is. Maybe he can get 50 starts. It’s up to him and how he plays.”
The Leafs see themselves as a playoff team. They feel they have top-six forwards who can generate offense. They feel they have bottom-six forwards who embrace their roles. They have a deep defense corps, at least on paper.
And if they are going to make the playoffs, they must win games like Thursday night’s. Forget how far the Habs went in the playoffs last season – upsetting the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on their way to the Eastern Conference final – and remember that they barely got in. They were the eighth seed in the East, one point ahead of the ninth-place New York Rangers. Considering they came back virtually intact, they are the bar with which to measure the Leafs in terms of playoff aspirations.
The Leafs got the job done this time. They got a goal from a guy they’re counting on to score, Phil Kessel(notes), and secondary scoring from Tim Brent(notes) and Clarke MacArthur(notes). A year after finishing last in the NHL in both special teams’ categories, they didn’t score on the power play but didn’t give up a power-play goal, either.
That said, the Habs were missing three key players – forward Mike Cammalleri (suspension) and defensemen Andrei Markov(notes) (injury) and Roman Hamrlik(notes) (injury) – and it still came down to Giguere. It wasn’t just the last 10 seconds. Giguere made some other sharp stops.
“I think if you asked Jacques Martin how he got to the conference finals last year, it would probably be a save here or there,” Wilson said dryly, referring to his Canadiens counterpart and the heroics of former Habs goaltender Jaroslav Halak(notes). “It’s the same thing. If you get decent goaltending, then often you solve a lot of problems. Tonight Giggy was outstanding.”
And for one night, for a change, the Leafs’ problems were solved.