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Maple Leafs take positives from sloppy season-opening victory

TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe left Scotiabank Arena pleased with the result. The Maple Leafs head coach was also far less enthused about how his team got there.
Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his goal against the Montreal Canadiens with William Nylander (88) during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO — Sheldon Keefe left Scotiabank Arena pleased with the result.

The Maple Leafs head coach was also far less enthused about how his team got there.

Upon further reflection, however, and after breaking down the video, Keefe saw a lot of positives in Toronto's wild 6-5 shootout victory over the Montreal Canadiens to open the 2023-24 season.

"We did a lot of really good things in that game that were spoiled with some big mistakes," Keefe said after Friday's practice. "It took away a lot of the good things that we did, but I think those things are fixable.

"Very fixable, in fact."

It also doesn't take away from the fact those errors still happened.

Toronto trailed 2-0 early and then 5-3 thanks to some egregious giveaways and breakdowns before Auston Matthews, who became the fastest player in franchise history to reach 300 goals, completed his hat trick by scoring twice with Leafs netminder Ilya Samsonov on the bench for an extra attacker late in the third period.

"We had a lot of really good sequences, good carrying play, and doing a lot of good things," he said. "And then you have one or two things that are glaring errors that lose momentum, lose control, and then things slip from there. 

"You make mistakes, you open the game up for the opposition. Now you tend to be on the ice tired, defending tired, and then you make mistakes within that."

Toronto, which hosts the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, has struggled in October the last two seasons, going a combined 8-8-3 before finding a groove and finishing with 115- and 111-point campaigns.

With those past early issues in mind, the club looked to change some of its training camp and pre-season plans, including giving more rest days.

"Never a perfect formula," Leafs captain John Tavares said. "Something that's always evolving and always changing. The guys in here understand it, too. We think about those things as we reflect on a year or we're getting ready for another one — trying to be better and trying to grow. 

"We know (October) hasn't been the greatest the last couple of years. We understand trying to be in the moment. But you also know the big picture."

Toronto defenceman John Klingberg, who had two assists in his debut after signing in free agency, said the team is aware of the pressure points where it can improve.

"You're dealing with the mistakes and the good things," he said. "We addressed that today and move on." 

The conversations were a lot more positive than Keefe expected.

"Some things for us to clean up," he said. "But there was way more good in the game than, frankly, I was expecting." 


The blueliner sat out a big chunk of pre-season with an upper-body injury, but didn't miss a beat in the opener.

Klingberg fed Noah Gregor for Toronto's first goal to cut the deficit to 2-1 and then served a one-timer on a platter for William Nylander's 3-2 goal on a man advantage.

"Mindset of coming in and trying to play a simple game," he said. "Going to try to build on that." 

Occupying the role of distributor on a talented No. 1 power-play unit that features Matthews, Nylander, Tavares and Mitch Marner, the Swede has been impressed with first-year assistant Guy Boucher's approach to the Leafs' system.

"Brought in some things that make a lot of sense," Klingberg said. "It's been an eye-opener."


Ryan Reaves dropped the gloves with Montreal defenceman Arber Xhekaj in Wednesday's first period.

The Leafs enforcer wants a rematch.

The six-foot-two, 226-pound Reaves pasted Montreal blueliner Kaiden Guhle into the boards and was quickly met by the six-foot-four, 240-pound Xhekaj — too quickly, in the Toronto winger's eyes.

"I don't like getting jumped," Reaves said. "I don't know if I've ever really jumped anybody. If you want to fight, just ask. 

"I'm always around. You know where to find me." 

The fisticuffs ended with Xhekaj pushing Reaves into Montreal's net before the pair tumbled to the ice.

"I don't know if he did it on purpose to end it," Reaves said. "Once I stood up and he had a grab of me, he just tried pushing me the rest of the way. Felt like it was on purpose."

Any rematch will be months in the making. The Leafs and Canadiens don't play again until March 9 at the Bell Centre.

"We've got them two more times," Reaves said. "I'm sure something might happen." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2023.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press