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Rosie DiManno: Montreal again? Maple Leafs can’t look ahead at ’21-22 season without looking back

Rosie DiManno: Montreal again? Maple Leafs can’t look ahead at ’21-22 season without looking back
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“We’ve come back with a clear focus.”

Jake Muzzin was angry and that hasn’t much dissipated.

“Guys are pissed off … There was a little anger in some guys and we’re going to need that throughout the whole season.’’

John Tavares absorbed the disappointment, rationally assessed how that stupefying collapse happened — and he wasn’t even slightly to blame because the captain was there for only 10 minutes and 29 seconds of the godforsaken 2021 playoffs.

“Push the envelope. How can we find a way to continuously challenge our opponents and continually challenge ourselves?”

Jason Spezza brought a veteran’s discerning eye to an experience that absolutely cannot be repeated.

“We feel like we keep learning from the pitfalls.”

And banana peels.

On May 31, the Toronto Maple Leafs were broken, cracked open. A gutted team, an object of derision, punchline to a joke that has grown tiresomely old.

On Oct. 13, they started the long and grinding process of putting themselves together again, much reassembly required.

Season opener and déjà vu Wednesday, stepping into their own footprints. Against the same historical rival, Montreal, that kicked them in the goolies. They can’t undo the past but they can assert themselves on the present, starting with a 2-1 flick-off of their jacked-up opponents, with William Nylander scoring the winner.

A hard-nosed training camp doesn’t mean diddly, except to lay down markers. Game 1 of the 2021-22 campaign, while momentously significant — the first full-capacity crowd at Scotiabank Arena for a regular-season hockey game since March 10, 2020 (but, at 18,493, not a sellout) — is little more than a quick-glance prologue. This is a club that will be judged next spring, after Game 82, not what happens in between, regardless of how sparkly. Leafs Nation has been sold a pig in a poke before and before and before.

All that glitter was fool’s gold.

Not to put too fine a point on it — certainly the players won’t allow any negativity to upend their positivity and, yeah, sure, it’s a pristine new season, you’re supposed to be buoyantly hopeful — but this version of the Leafs is not as impressive as the prior, not on paper, and don’t let the spinmeisters con you different. Key components are gone, either because they were heaved or because salary cap restrictions on a top-heavy roster of gems left scant room for contract manoeuvring. That’s down to Kyle Dubas.

Enter the irregulars and the bargoons.

So what are we to make of a Nick Ritchie on the top line, which wasn’t actually in situ on this evening — Auston Matthews, recovering from wrist surgery, not yet game-fit (he offered a pre-game “hi” from the bench, in his striped civvy blazer), though Mitch Marner suited up despite a fluke collision with Wayne Simmonds in Tuesday’s practice. Really, no Leaf needs to make more hockey reparations than both Marner and Matthews, on the evidence of May.

What are we to make of Michael Bunting, groomed for the Tavares line with William Nylander? Or Ondrej Kaše and David Kämpf and Michael Amadio, who only stuck with the big club because the ill-fated Ilya Mikheyev, out at least two months with a thumb injury.

And what are we to make of Petr Mrázek, a comme ci comme ca netminder who is supposed to provide ballast for Jack Campbell, putatively but still unproven over a full season as a No. 1 goalie.

Dunno.

“I always expected to be in this position,” Campbell was saying the other day of his drawn-out blossoming. “I just didn’t perform enough to be able to. Now I just expect it out of myself to bring my best game every time for the team.”

Jack has a cat. Called Buds. Because he’s not responsibly ready for a dog.

To a man, they profess to have no doubt about themselves as a group. Sounding rather like the anti-vaxxer brigade, who have no doubt that science is flim-flam. (Were those vax deniers protesting outside Scotiabank before the game? Hard to tell, except there was a giant crucifix involved.)

But even on a night of communal homecoming, all the traditional bells and whistles of a season opener — updated from the 48th Highlanders to include light-up bracelets for fans, a quasi-Arkells performance and free slice of pizza for everybody if the Leafs scored the first goal (they didn’t) — there was still a sense of unease.

Oh, the players gave no indication of that, of course. It was all yippee-ki-yay and let’s get at ’er, as Mike Babcock would say. Twitching with anticipation. As Spezza had put it: “Remember being, like, nine, before Christmas?”

So let’s unwrap this sucker.

With their own mums and dads in the stands, many of them. “Guys have their parents in town for the first time in a long time,” noted Rielly. “It’s an aspect of this whole thing that’s underrated.”

Not quite normal, not hardly, with the double-vax proof required for attendance, and the masking, although go ahead and sit cheek by jowl, holler all you want. Not like the Scotiabank is, say, a restaurant, with restricted and distanced seating.

Reaffirming themselves against the Carey Price-less Canadiens was meaningful, too. They have always been the nemesis but most especially in the aftermath of … you know. “Given that we’ve played them three times in the pre-season, got some of that stuff out of our system,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after the optional morning skate.

“There’s no other opponent in the league we know better than this one. They know what to expect from us. It’s a matter of executing and who’s going to establish their game first.”

(Answer: Montreal did.)

OK, fine, no use looking back. Although, year after year, it’s been about erasing the past, vanquishing the ghosts, resetting, reorienting. Further, whatever’s been said on the outside, by the professional commentariat and among an exasperated fan base, has already been dissected from within.

“During camp, we’ve done a good job talking about things,” said Rielly. “We understand. We’ve talked about what’s happened in the past and we want to move forward from that. That’ll be a daily challenge. As the season wears on, it’ll be important for the group to keep ourselves in the moment, to be there for one another.”

Muzzin didn’t really care one way or another, he claimed, who their opponent was for Game 1. “Last year we focused on setting the standard and we did a lot of good things. We made our way into the playoffs and fell short.”

Short take from the coach, who has observed that his team, circa ’21, has “an additional edge to them.”

“Lots of optimism. Lots of belief in the work that we’ve done.

“I think the team feels much closer, much more put together, I guess I would say, than last season.”
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