It was the kind of win that probably would have eluded the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.
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Clinging to a one-goal lead with the opposition pressing in the final minute, Jean-Sebastien Giguere made two saves that Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson figured he wouldn’t have gotten a year ago.
Giguere extended his left pad as Montreal captain Brian Gionta got two whacks at the puck just before the buzzer sounded on Toronto’s 3-2 victory over the Canadiens on Thursday night.
"He played really well," Wilson said. "He focuses and battles every shot. Looking at the game, this is probably one that last year we’d get tied against in the last minute. Because of a couple of great saves, we ended up preserving the win."
Better goaltending was one of the key reasons Wilson felt good heading into the year, and Giguere justified his optimism in the season opener. He was sharp all night and finished with 26 saves.
Wilson never seemed to have much confidence in Vesa Toskala, who started last season as the Leafs’ top goaltender but was shipped to Anaheim in the Jan. 31 trade that brought Giguere to Toronto.
The 33-year-old Giguere is the oldest player on a young Leafs team and has brought the confidence that comes with being a Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner. His poise showed when everything got frantic in the final minute.
"I was holding my breath, that’s for sure," said Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur, who scored the winning goal. "Good goalies find ways to make those saves. He got us the win there, right at the end. He battled hard and I thought the team battled around him.
"I just thought Jiggy controlled his rebounds all night. It makes it a lot easier on the team when a goalie is confident like that."
Tim Brent and Phil Kessel also scored for the Maple Leafs, who won their first home opener since October 2000. Dustin Boyd and Jeff Halpern each had a goal in their first game for Montreal.
With the clock ticking down, Gionta was sure he was going to get the Canadiens even.
"He made two or three big saves on me there at the end," Gionta said. "I thought I had it, but he found a way to get his pad on it."
Toronto took advantage of the Canadiens, who were missing key personnel. Winger Mike Cammalleri sat out a one-game suspension, and defensemen Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik were sidelined by knee injuries.
The absences were felt the most with the man advantage as Montreal went 0-for-3 on the power play.
"For sure, anytime you’re without two of your most talented guys the power play is going to take a hit," Gionta said.
It was a typically tight game between the longtime rivals, who needed overtime to decide five of six meetings last season. That included the opener, in which Montreal tied it late before pulling out a 4-3 win in extra time.
Only six Leafs players who played in that game were on the ice for this one – a sign of the massive overhaul general manager Brian Burke constructed over the last year.
MacArthur, one of the new faces, scored the eventual winner. He made a nice play to beat defenseman Jaroslav Spacek before putting a nice backhander behind Carey Price at 1:36 of the third period.
"That was a special goal for me," MacArthur said. "A lot of my goals are off the side of the net. They’re ugly. So I’ll take a pretty one every once in a while."
Halpern scored less than a minute later to make it 3-2, but that was as close as Montreal would get.
Beyond Giguere’s performance, there was plenty for Toronto to enjoy. The journeyman Brent opened the scoring with his second NHL goal, and Kessel picked up where he left off after a productive preseason.
But Wilson was quick to try to rein in his team. In the moments after Thursday’s victory, the coach was already looking forward to Saturday’s matchup against Ottawa.
"It’s one game, we’re not going to get carried away," he said. "We’ve got another rival (on Saturday) and that’ll be another energetic affair. … I’m banning all newspapers from the room (Friday), and making sure the TV is not on.
"I’m sure they’ve already planned the Stanley Cup parade."