I’ve heard a few people say that there’s too many outdoor hockey games these days. That makes me wonder if these people have ever actually experienced an outdoor hockey game – especially one with as much excitement and tradition surrounding it. Yesterday’s Centennial Classic game at Exhibition Stadium between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings was the first game in what I imagine will be a year-long celebration of the National Hockey League’s 100th anniversary. While the first couple period seemed fairly slow-moving, the third period and beyond absolutely lived up to all the hype surrounding the game.
First, though, let’s start with Saturday afternoon’s Alumni Game, featuring past stars of both the Leafs and Red Wings. Looking at the list of players on the Leafs side, it was a trip down memory lane. Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Lanny McDonald, Darcy Tucker, Gary Roberts, Steve Thomas, Borje Salming, Al Iafrate, Curtis Joseph, Felix Potvin and Mike Palmateer (who I’m too young to remember playing), just to name a few.
These Alumni games are a part of every Winter Classic, and with a Leafs lineup like that against some of the best in recent years from the Red Wings, we were all in for a treat. It’s been years since these guys played at the NHL level, so some of the rules were changed to make it a little more relaxed out there. For example: No slapshots, and instead of penalties, an infraction against the opposing team results in a penalty shot. That rule set up the first big highlight of the game, when Mike Palmateer tripped Tomas Holmstrom in front of the Leafs net. Holmstrom was awarded a penalty shot, and Palmateer made what would be his only save of the game in quite spectacular fashion:
I’m sore just looking at that, and I’m nowhere near 62 years old. After evidently hurting himself, Palmateer gave way to Felix Potvin and the game continued on. These games generally are “for fun,” or at least from an outside viewpoint I would assume they are. Just look at this exchange between Tie Domi and Chris Chelios. If this had happened in a game a couple years ago, I’m sure Chelly would’ve got a faceful of Domi’s fists… Instead:
A few goals here and there, but another one of the big highlights wasn’t a crazy goal… It was Gary Roberts and Kris Draper slashing away at each other and looking like they might actually drop the gloves… In an alumni game! And then, Draper scored the game-winning goal which was controversial in itself. First, have a look:
The controversy? Like I said above, there was an agreement that there would be no slapshots, but Draper’s goal came on the rebound of a Dino Ciccarelli slapshot. To no avail, however. The Red Wings took the alumni game 4-3 – with current Leafs president Brendan Shanahan scoring a beauty for the Wings – I’ll show you that a little bit further down. There were no hard feelings, though, as this epic photobomb from Lanny McDonald shows:
And the resulting photo:
Fast forward to Sunday, New Years Day. Before the game in the fan area outside the stadium, Arkells performed a set for a big crowd before everyone streamed into Exhibition Stadium for the big game. It was a beautiful sunny day along Toronto’s lakeshore, and that actually caused the game to be delayed by 30 minutes in interest of player safety. The sun created quite a glare on the ice, and fans in the east side of the stadium were thankful they wouldn’t have to deal with that once the game started.
As part of the pre-game ceremonies, Ron MacLean introduced the first 33 of the NHL’s Top 100 players of all time, and welcomed family representatives for each. Wayne Gretzky was also there as part of the presentation and to drop the puck in the ceremonial faceoff.
The first period was not especially exciting. I can’t say for sure, but I assumed the chilly temperatures may have played a factor. There were also questions about the quality of the ice surface, but in interviews, the players all commented on the fact that the ice was actually pretty good. After a scoreless first period, Wings rookie Anthony Mantha silenced the local contingent of the crowd of over 40,000 by netting the first goal of the game with 5 1/2 minutes gone in the second:
That’s how the second period ended, and with the way the Leafs have played in the third period this year, I think fans were a little restless. But early in the first, Jake Gardiner set up Leo Komarov with a beautiful centering pass from behind the net and Uncle Leo made no mistake, tying it up for the good guys!
A couple minutes later, Matt Martin got both his team and the massive crowd going in a fairly intense-looking scrap with Steve Ott.
At that point, the momentum was on the side of the Leafs. 5 minutes later, Mitch Marner dangled around the defenders and struck to give the Leafs their first lead of the game – and Exhibition stadium erupted.
Just over a minute later, it was fellow rookie Connor Brown‘s turn to light it up:
And then, about 2 1/2 minutes later, Auston Matthews netted his 19th of the year to put the Leafs up 4-1 with less than 8 minutes to go in the third.
Above, I mentioned Brendan Shanahan‘s goal in the Alumni game. Watch that Matthews goal above, and compare it to Shanny’s from the day before:
Any loyal Maple Leafs fan, however, knows that no third period lead is safe – and that’s already been put on display a few times this season. A couple minutes later, the collapse began when Johnathan Ericsson potted a nice little setup from Mantha to give Wings fans a little hope.
As far as I could tell, Leafs fans weren’t panicking yet at that point. Just a little inconvenience, that’s all. Until, with less than two minutes to go and an empty net at the other end, Dylan Larkin scored to make it a one goal game. That’s when Leafs fans moved to the edge of their seats, thinking “There’s no way this can happen AGAIN!” The last minute of the game especially was a siege on the Leafs net, with defenders just bunching up in front of the net hoping to stop any pucks from getting through. The crowd had already begun counting down the final seconds and was sure the game was over by the time Anthony Mantha scored his second of the game to tie it with less than 2 seconds left in regulation time. You wanna talk about setting up a huge finale for the game?
The crowd was in disbelief, but it sunk in when the referee, after reviewing the play, informed the crowd that it was indeed a good goal – and unless the Leafs could snipe one in ~1.1 seconds, the game was going to overtime.
As Leafs fans in the crowd hoped and prayed this wouldn’t go down as another epic 4-1 third period collapse, there were chances at both ends. But with time winding down in the 3-on-3 overtime, Auston Matthews showed why he was 2016’s first overall draft pick and why Leafs fans are justifiably excited about the coming years as he won it for the Blue & White:
Even watching that replay, I can’t quite get my head around how Matthews put that one in the back of the net. Fortunately there is a better angle that shows just how little room he had to backhand that sucker in:
Personally, I like it even more with appropriate backing music:
The best part? With that overtime winner, Matthews passed Patrik Laine, the second-overall draft pick, for the lead in rookie goals AND points – and that’s with a 13-game goalless streak in there too. Who’s the better player now? And even better still, with less than half the season gone, Matthews has already matched the highest goal total for any Leafs player from last year. He’s only getting started.
The goal also earned him a comparison to a guy who was revealed as one of the Top 100 NHL players ever before the game:
Auston Matthews is the first #Leafs rookie to score 20 goals prior to his first 40 career games played since Charlie Conacher in 1929-30
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) January 1, 2017
After the game, Coach Mike Babcock had some pretty insightful things to say. If you’re a Leafs fan, I highly recommend watching his post-game presser:
“It’s a young group. You know, they’re gonna grow up here together. I think the other thing you’d say, if you’re [Morgan Rielly], you arrive here and everybody’s leaving all the time. These guys aren’t leaving, they’re staying. So – and they’re going to stay for a long time and be a real good team. Now, it’s going to take us some time to get there. It’s going to take us time. Obviously, we’re not deep enough and not good enough, but we’re gonna get better.”
Music to my ears. For the first time in a long time, it seems like Leafs fans have something to look forward to! With this guy at the helm and the collection of solid young skaters, the Leafs will be a team to fear in the not-too-distant future.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not ready to start planning the parade or anything like that, but after taking in what was one of the most ridiculous endings to a game (especially in one that meant so much to the league), it’s hard not to get excited about where this team is going.
While there likely is more pain ahead before they get there, 2017 started off on a great note.
Happy New Year, Leafs fans… And here’s to a bright future!