TORONTO — New head coach Mike Babcock has already changed the Toronto Maple Leafs. At least, according to the Montreal Canadiens.
Babcock's positive impact on the Maple Leafs' style of play was evident in Wednesday's season opener, even though it was a 3-1 loss to Montreal.
"Much tougher to play against," said Habs captain Max Pacioretty, who scored the game's opening goal and picked up his second of the night with an empty netter. "That team, they're going to surprise a lot of teams this year, I think.
"They were definitely hard-nosed, in our face. We didn't have much out there."
Babcock was coach of the Detroit Red Wings from 2005 until the end of last season, winning a Stanley Cup with the team in 2008. He also coached Canada to Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014. Toronto signed him as its new head coach on May 20, reportedly agreeing to an eight-year deal worth $50 million, making him the highest paid coach in NHL history
The Leafs (0-1-0) outshot the Habs by a 37-30 margin on Wednesday and had several chances to tie the game 2-2. Peter Holland missed an opportunity at the side of the net on a third period power play and Nick Spaling fanned on a point-blank chance in the slot.
"I thought we did lots of good things structurally, I thought we won a lot of battles," said Babcock. "I thought we could've been tighter at times in our own zone and through the neutral zone.
"When you do get your chance, you've got to burry them. (Carey Price) made some huge saves, but he does it every night. They don't even know over there that he made a huge save. That's just another day's work for him."
Daniel Winnik, who had a 58 game stint with the Leafs last season and re-signed in Toronto during the off-season, took notice of the difference in his team's shot differential.
"It's a big improvement," he said. "Usually we were around 15 or 20 shots a game and giving up 30 to 40. I thought there was a spell in the first and second where we dipped for about five or six minutes and they took it to us, but other than that, I felt we had much more zone time than them in the offensive zone. I thought we controlled the puck for a good chunk of the game."
Jonathan Bernier turned aside 27 shots in the loss, but struggled all night with his rebound control. The 27-year-old admitted post-game that it took time for the nerves to settle.
"First half of the game I think I gave up a lot of rebounds and nerves were in, but as the game got going, I think I felt much better," he said.
Pacioretty's opening goal is one Bernier would've liked to have back.
"It just hit my shoulder and it kind of rolled, rolled on top of it," he said. "I'm sure I'll try that a few times and it probably won't happen."
Bernier will get his shot at redemption on Friday night when the Leafs visit Detroit.
Dhiren Mahiban, The Canadian Press