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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens open season with thrilling 4-3 win over Maple Leafs

General Manager Kent Hughes put it simply on the day of the big game, the day the season began.

Hughes said this season, all he will look for is growth. There are no playoff aspirations here. No one is pretending this is not another difficult transition year toward a more sustainable future. The tenure of Marc Bergevin was a rollercoaster of highs leading the club all the way to the final, but then lows drafting top 10 too many times.

The goal in the next phase is to be one of those teams that is sustainably good every season. Not a cup final dropping to 32nd, but upper echelon every year. That’s the goal. The road will be long, but if they play interesting hockey, the fan base will be supportive.

So to the Toronto Maple Leafs visit on opening night to see how interesting it could be watching these young players grow together, as Montreal fought the Leafs every step of the way, winning 4-3 with 17.9 seconds left on a Josh Anderson laser to the top corner.

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There were a ton of positives on night one. There were so many who shone. It was particularly satisfying to see how many of the new Canadiens looked like they belong and can grow their game well. The ceiling for Kirby Dach, for example, looks high.

Dach skates well through the neutral zone to win the offensive zone with speed and a quick stick. He then reads the ice well to deliver the puck to open men. He also problem solves at a very high level. There is much to like about Dach’s game. He did not look over-matched as a second line centre at all.

Another player who we knew had tremendous talent in the past is Sean Monahan. The entire question is what could he bring in 2022, and the answer appears to be quite a lot. It’s hard to believe when you watch him that he actually came for a first-round draft pick. That’s hard to word correctly — he came not by giving up a first-round pick, but by acquiring one from Calgary. It’s not often that one of your best forwards on night one is a salary dump.

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Monahan brought a lot of savvy to the contest. He always made the right play, and he did not look troubled for speed at all. It feels like he’s the former Monahan who was on the number one line in Calgary. It is easy to see him occupy the centre position this season, if he keeps that level of play up. For now, the wing is right, because you want to see him get lots of ice and play against top players.

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The future is also Dach, so the organization needs to see him handle the centre responsibilities, so they can learn what his ceiling is in two years. It all looked very good on night one. Dach almost scored on a gorgeous wraparound with a defender draped all over him, but the puck crossed only 85 per cent of the goal line.

Late in the third period, it was a tremendous play from Dach all over the offensive zone, beating three men along the boards to keep a drive alive. It led to a Monahan rebound that he roofed as the Canadiens took the lead briefly.

Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki were also showing that same outstanding chemistry together. Late first period, Caufield fired wide on a feed that looked like an open net on a 2-on-1. In the second period, he made up for it. A Suzuki pass on to Caufield’s stick on another odd-man rush. The puck was rolling like mad, but Caufield stayed with it, and just as he was about to actually pass the net by, he tucked it under the bar. It was classic Caufield. Only a world-class shooter puts it in that spot.

Caufield’s second goal was even better. It’s another odd man rush, but this time it’s Caufield who leads it. He elects to shoot. His release was so quick that you almost felt sorry for Matt Murray, the goaltender. Murray moved after it was already in the net. Actually, in truth, it appeared Murray moved his glove only after it sprung back after hitting the tight twine. It was an absolute rocket. In Murray’s defence, no one stops that shot. Caufield with two goals in game one. He was drafted 15th. Fifteenth.

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Josh Anderson still the right winger for Caufield and Suzuki as he ripped a shot for the win in the final seconds as that line scored three of the four Canadiens goals.

Quietly, Christian Dvorak also had a strong game. He handled his responsibilities well, and fought hard for pucks winning his fair share. He also saved a goal with a high-energy back check.

Evgenii Dadonov had a couple of clever moments, and once almost scored, charging the net hard and timing his effort for a rebound or deflection.

Brendan Gallagher earned a partial breakaway in the third period with a burst of speed we have not seen in two seasons, showing that better health he’s been talking about that had been lost for too long. If Gallagher can skate like this and play with health again, we may see him recapture some of his former glory again.

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On the blue line, there are so many positives considering what the nerves must have been like for the four rookies. Jordan Harris played a smart contest, and didn’t look troubled. Kaiden Guhle played almost eight minutes in the first period, and handled every moment well.

Guhle is going to be a first pair defender in the NHL when he is seasoned. He might even be a top pair defender by mid-season. He was the best blue liner on opening night. He won a ton of puck battles. His decision making was nearly perfect. He had the skating ability to separate himself from Toronto’s forechecker.

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Arber Xhekaj laid out a big hit on the first shift and just kept going. He also joined the rush on occasion and did not seem overwhelmed at all by the scope of the evening.

Finally, Johnathan Kovacevic is a great skater for a big player. Terrific mobility for his height and stature. He was dominant in the American Hockey League for the Jets last season, and he didn’t look troubled at all for the Habs on night one.

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It was fascinating to see the four rookie defencemen hold their own well in the opening frame, only to see a veteran have the telling difficulty on the opening Leafs goal.

David Savard had the puck hop over his stick at the blue line after the Canadiens won the offensive zone face-off. It rolled into the Habs zone where Savard struggled to keep up with the Leafs speed on the attack. Eventually, the action went behind the net where Savard wasn’t able to stop the pass from going in front. That’s where Josh Anderson lost his man Michael Bunting. That goal will be typical of the season.

The offence of the Habs seems to be creating well enough in the attacking zone, but the overall team defence, including the actual defenders, will need time to grow together smartly.

This is an extremely young group. Not just the defence, but the forwards, as well, who must also learn their responsibilities.

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There are going to be many games with the club allowing four or five. That’s just the way it is when you bring rookies in all over the lineup. The veterans are going to feel like they can’t make any mistakes. Players like Savard will have to play at their best, and be teachers of the game at the same time.

It’s a tall order. However, if everyone keeps in mind that mile one was the opener and each mile travelled brings more experience and intelligence, the road will get less bumpy over time. That’s the entire mantra of this season: just grow your game.

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The first game of the season isn’t supposed to be a huge injury report. Injuries are supposed to come only after you’ve played at least one meaningful game.

Carey Price says he would love to play again, but according to an interview in The Athletic he would need a serious surgery to ever return competitively. Price loves the game, but his knee is telling him that he cannot continue. However, it is not just his knee that is breaking down. Price says that he also lives with hip and back pain each day.

Price says trying to carry on with his day in a normal fashion is taxing. One would imagine that kind people in his milieu would simply tell him that he has had a wonderful career and it is time to take care of himself. It is time to consider the decades ahead when he would like the opportunity to walk on a beach without pain, lift his children over his head, hold his wife’s hand as they walk and simply enjoy the rewards of the great labour that he put in for the Canadiens during half of his life.

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Another long-term injury and now on the injured reserve list to start the season is Paul Byron. His hip will not co-operate after surgery. He remains out for the near and middle term according to Hughes who spoke to the media on the afternoon of the season opener.

Other injuries are not as serious, thankfully. Joel Edmundson is skating daily and making progress on a bad back that has plagued him for a considerable amount of time dating back to last season.  Edmundson could be in the lineup in the coming days, according to the GM.

The other big injury is also to a blue liner, as newly-acquired Mike Matheson injured himself in the Maritimes last Thursday. He has not hit the ice since the lower-body injury and is also out for what looks like a couple more weeks. He had an MRI Wednesday with the results expected within 48 hours.

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An already inexperienced blue line has lost its two best players. It’s going to be a challenge this season either way for the Habs, but the pressure on four blue line rookies to perform admirably during their first bushel of games in the NHL will be intense.

Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, and Arbor Xhekaj are the future, but they’re not supposed to be so significantly impacting the present.  Johnathan Kovacevic no one has even seen play, including the head coach who had no choice but to throw him into the line-up against Toronto. Kovacevic is 25 years old, but also a rookie.

We knew there would be challenges, but such poor health on October 12th kind of feels like piling on.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.

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