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GREAT GRIT: Maple Leafs dig deep in opening win over Canadiens

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As much as the Maple Leafs need flash, it’s their blue collar and goaltending that will make the difference.

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Lack of those hurt them in playoffs against Montreal last year and so putting that stamp on their home-opening effort Wednesday versus the same foe in a full house was a must.

A new-look grinder line of Pierre Engvall, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf was a factor as were key shot blocks by Kampf and Justin Holl in a tense 1:40 third-period 5-on-3 penalty kill that aided Jack Campbell in preserving a 2-1 win.

Engvall’s goal and the winner by William Nylander delighted 18,493 fans, who came alive in the third with the big kill and another minor to Nylander. Close to 600 days had elapsed since Scotiabank Arena was full, while in that span, two playoff series ended in defeat in the same building with mostly artificial crowd noise. Although almost half of the players on both teams from Game 7 are currently injured or have moved on, there was heavy symbolism in coming out strong against the Habs in the first of Toronto’s three games in four days.

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Campbell, who endured a tough summer for his role in the playoff letdown, made seven mostly difficult early saves from a combination of bad bounces and mates’ miscues before Jonathan Drouin scored on a 2-on-1. It was a triumph for Drouin after time away from the game last year dealing with personal anxiety issues.

Coach Sheldon Keefe doesn’t want the Leafs using Auston Matthews’ three-game absence with a healing wrist as an excuse and made sure to mention in his morning brief how well the team usually performs when he’s been out and that various line changes in practice and exhibitions so far prepared the team for line juggling.

John Tavares, the last to be introduced pre-game to the loudest cheer, moved to Matthews’ spot with Mitch Marner and newcomer Nick Ritchie.

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The line had its early chances on Jake Allen, but not until after two power plays floundered and they trailed, did the house get to rock as Engvall scored just as an Alexander Romanov penalty was ending, Ritchie providing the screen. Engvall, with three pre-season goals, hit the post from in tight to open the second period and worked well setting up Czechs Kase and Kampf.

Maple Leafs’ Jake Muzzin (left) battles on the boards with Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson during Wednesday’s game in Toronto. DAN HAMILTON/USA TODAY SPORTS
Maple Leafs’ Jake Muzzin (left) battles on the boards with Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson during Wednesday’s game in Toronto. DAN HAMILTON/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Leafs’ mantra through September was not to brush off what happened in the playoffs but to channel their frustration into something positive.

“Guys were pissed off and we came to camp to work, not just go through the motions,” defenceman Jake Muzzin said before the game. “There was a little anger in some guys and we’re going to need that the whole season.”

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“All our players have an additional edge to them,” Keefe added. “I’ve been capitalizing on that. The first day of camp was very difficult and taxing on them, but they wanted it that way, to get out in front of that. They’ve come together as a team and been very business-like through camp.”

The coach was also counting on the return of true home-ice advantage Wednesday and going forward.

“We have a number of guys who haven’t played a regular-season game in front of their family (including himself),” Keefe reminded. “It’s a big deal. The season is so long, it’s important to have that family connection.”

The task will be to sustain momentum.

“We just want more,   more effort, growing more, improving in every area we can,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “But it’s a long season and it will be interesting to see if we can carry that over 82 games.”

lhornby@postmedia.com

  

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