Young guns dominate in Leafs home opener

The kids are more than just alright.

In fact the Leafs rookies have proven to be exceptional over the first two games of the 2016-17 season. Mitch Marner and Connor Brown provided the only offence that Toronto would need in their 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins in the Leafs’ home opener.

Connor Brown opened the scoring in the game, pouncing on a rebound just over two minutes into the first period. Less than ten minutes later, Marner netted his first career NHL goal, an unforgettable milestone. Last season’s most dominant junior player got the better of Bruins goaltender Anton Khudobin on a partial breakaway for the tally.

“Brownie scoring the first one – it’s exciting for all of us,” said Marner after the game. “We had a lot of fun out there throughout the night, and I think it’s going to keep getting better.”

Marner said he would likely give the milestone puck to his parents. “It’s pretty exciting. Obviously every kid dreams of that puck going in the net, especially in front of your home crowd,” he said. “It was a special moment for me and it’s definitely a thing I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”

The game represented a symbolic passing of the torch from previous generations of Leafs greats to the next group of rising stars. Many Hall of Fame legends were on hand to celebrate the opening of the franchise’s centennial season, and the sellout crowd – plus the legions of fans tuned in across the country – were pleasantly surprised at the announcement of the retirement of all numbers that were previously honoured, but still in circulation.

Johnny Bower, Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour were among the alumni that received thunderous ovations as banners bearing the numbers 1, 27, 17 and 93 respectively were raised to the rafters at Air Canada Centre, never to be worn again by Leafs players.

For James van Riemsdyk, now bearing number 25 in place of Borje Salming’s retired 21, the Leafs winger said that the new digits felt different, after sporting the number that he had worn since childhood for so long.

“Salming had a great career here with Toronto. It’s well-deserved for him to have no one wearing his number,” van Riemsdyk said. The man known as JVR became the first Leafs non-rookie to find the back of the net this season, kicking the puck to his stick before roofing a backhander over Khudobin to extend Toronto’s lead to 3-0.

However, before the first period ended, Boston’s David Pastrnak cut the Leafs’ lead on the power play, one-timing a shot past Frederik Andersen with eleven seconds left in a penalty to Marner.

Milan Michalek rounded out the scoring late in the second period, converting a tremendous seeing-eye pass from Morgan Rielly and tipping the puck at the edge of the crease to restore the three-goal lead.

And of course, cue the customary 4-1 lead jokes, against Boston no doubt.

But, unlike Game Seven, the Leafs held their ground. Andersen, who had a shaky opening game in Ottawa on Wednesday, was solid in the win, most notably stopping Pastrnak point-blank to help preserve the victory.

“It was nice for him tonight,” coach Mike Babcock said. “It’ll give him a great day tomorrow. Just trust yourself and trust your instincts and don’t spend too much time away from the rink thinking about hockey.”

The game also featured a renewal of hostilities between Nazem Kadri and David Backes, who engaged in fisticuffs just two seconds after Marner’s goal. Kadri fought Backes – then with St. Louis – on December 5 of last year, the Leafs’ first fighting major in what was their 31st game of the season.

“I’m chasing (Matt Martin) in the fighting major department,” Kadri said, tongue in cheek.

The biggest pre-game announcement was the retirement of number 14 for the legendary Dave Keon, punctuating a week during which the former captain, who had been estranged from the franchise for decades, was honoured with a Legends Row statue, and also named as the greatest Leafs player of all-time by a selection committee.

Forward lines:
van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Marner
Michalek-Kadri-Komarov
Hyman-Matthews-Nylander
Martin-Holland-Brown

Defence pairings:
Marincin-Rielly
Gardiner-Carrick
Hunwick-Zaitsev

Goalies:
Andersen
Enroth