The drop of the puck tonight at the Bell Centre will signal the return to normalcy. A return to action, passion and excitement our game delivers every night better than any other sport. A return to fans gathering at the Bell Centre or in front of their televisions, living every exciting moment alongside our players. A return to morning discussions centred on last night's game and great plays, and no longer centred on when these games and great plays return. A return to hockey.
Montreal - This paragraph, taken from the Montreal Canadiens advertisement apology in The Gazette on Saturday, could not have been more prophetic.
It was amazing how swiftly the excitement and anticipation that the NHL was up and running again, that better times were expected for the Canadiens, were wiped out for the demanding Habs' faithful with a 2-1 loss to their oldest foes, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With the Maple Leafs in front 2-0, and the Canadiens' power play faltering once again, the fans turned up the volume of their disgust and disappointment. There were boos. There were chants of "P.K., P.K., P.K.," in support of the unsigned Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, one of the most popular Montreal players.
Canadiens captain Brian Gionta turned the crowd back in his team's favour with a power-play goal moments later. But there was no comeback on this night.
You just know that on Sunday and Monday, there will be a return to normalcy for Canadiens' fanatics who were at the Bell Centre or in front of their televisions at home, or who crowded into the popular establishments on St-Laurent Boulevard. The natives are restless.
"Yeah, we heard it on the bench," Canadiens defencemen Francis Bouillon said. "The fans have every right to do that. We know he's popular with the fans. But we had a game to play."
The citizens of Montreal awoke on Saturday to a striking snowfall. The blanket of fresh winter wonderland made for a perfect setting for the return of the NHL.
Buzz at Bell Centre
There was a buzz at Bell Centre at the morning skate. Plenty of young fans took advantage of the free admission to cheer on the Canadiens and jeer on the big Maple Leafs as they tuned up for the season opener.
Several hours later, like only the Canadiens' organization can, there was a superb ceremony to usher in the shortened NHL season. Yvan Cournoyer appeared with a lit torch. Then there was Henri Richard, Denis Savard, Vincent Damphousse, Serge Savard and finally Jean Beliveau, who passed off the torch to the Canadiens current captain, Gionta.
Each Canadiens coach and player was introduced. Head coach Michel Therrien, Bouillon and talented rookie Alex Galchenyuk drew the loudest ovations from the faithful.
For the 37-year-old Bouillon, who returned to the Habs after three seasons with the Nashville Predators, the overwhelming reception was emotional.
"We have great fans and I love it," he said. "It was emotional. This is my hometown. But I'm an older guy and more importantly we had a game to win."
Leafs spoil party
The Maple Leafs, however, spoiled the party. They, too, are trying to win back some respectability after seven straight seasons of packing up before the playoffs began.
Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak, the two players who have been rumoured in the possible trade for Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, scored the Toronto goals.
Head coach Randy Carlyle decided to play goalie Ben Scrivens over James Reimer. Scrivens had outplayed Reimer in the brief training camp and has also seen action in 43 games since Reimer's last outing on Mar. 23. By no means was Scrivens outstanding, but he was good enough in this sloppy game.
The Maple Leafs feel-good story was 27-year-old rookie defenceman Mike Kostka of Ajax, Ont. The late bloomer has stuck with it. Undrafted and unheralded, after 5 ½ seasons and 367 combined regular-season and playoff games in the AHL, he finally played a game in the NHL.
He not only assisted on Kadri's goal, less than five minutes into Kostka's NHL career, Carlyle played him 22 minutes and 59 seconds, second only to captain Dion Phaneuf's 26:43. So what was going through his head before the game?
"Everything and nothing," he said with a chuckle. "It was so loud in there, it was unbelievable and then you've just got to throw the nerves to the side and just play your game."
His game, even if the Habs' night was spoiled, provided a nice storyline for opening night.
"Everything and more," Kostka said, when asked if the night met his expectations. "It's such a special day. My parents are in town, my sister, brother in law, few of my best friends, my agent, a lot of people came to watch. I know a lot of people are watching back home. It's pretty special."
Maybe it will take some time for him to return to normalcy.
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