TORONTO -- With two gigantic pad saves on shots by Brian Gionta and the game on the line in the dying seconds Thursday night, Jean-Sebastien Giguere gave the Toronto Maple Leafs something they rarely got last season: clutch goaltending.
"This is probably a game that last year we get tied against in the last minute, but because of a couple of his great saves, we ended up preserving the win," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said after a nervy 3-2 win over the rival Montreal Canadiens on opening night.
This is the same Wilson that had the media corps in stitches in February at the 2010 Winter Olympics, when he threw his Leafs goaltending -- namely Vesa Toskala -- under the bus nearly on a daily basis with snide remarks about how nice it was to finally have a goaltender (namely Ryan Miller).
Joking aside, it was clear how frustrating it was for Wilson and the Leafs' front office not to get any saves last season, as underlined by their 29th ranking in the goals-against department.
"I think if you asked [Montreal coach] Jacques Martin how he got to the conference finals last year, it was probably a save here or there," Wilson said. "If you get decent goaltending, it can often solve a lot of problems, and tonight Giggy was outstanding."
For as much as GM Brian Burke's makeover continues here in Toronto, with a deep blue line and new faces on a forward group that still needs work, it's in goal where it will be decided as to whether the Leafs can knock on the playoff door.
Enter Giguere. Yes, he's being pushed by Jonas Gustavsson in what is being billed as an open battle for starts, but I'd be shocked if Giguere doesn't play at least 50 games. Wilson knows that's his best bet for this season.
And for Giguere, it's a chance to prove he's still got the goods to be an elite netminder in this league. When he was dealt here on Jan. 31, his acquisition was mostly seen as a chance to give Gustavsson a proper mentor. It was also seen as deep-pocketed Toronto taking a big contract off Anaheim's hands. Somehow, most people around the league had begun to see Giguere as a goalie playing out the twilight years of his career.
I've talked with Giguere about this a few times since he arrived in Toronto. It annoys him. He's 33, not 38, he's often told me.
"I'm not that old, people," he reiterated Thursday night after his 26-save performance. "You know, I do want to show everybody that I can play. I feel good and I have energy. These young guys give me energy every day. So it's fun to come to the rink. It's a new challenge for me."
He also wants to prove that his old GM buddy from the 2007 Cup-winning team in Anaheim was right in trading for him.
"I feel like I owe Burkie," Giguere said in French. "He took what you might see as a gamble trading for me. I really want to pay him back. He did me a favor, and I want to do right by him."
Giguere can also do right by himself this season. He's in a contract year. He's not going to match his current salary of $7 million (a $6 million cap hit), but a solid season, especially one in which he's seen as the No. 1 reason for Toronto surprisingly making the playoffs, would go a long way toward getting another nice contract.
But he'll be quick to tell you, this season is just about showing people he can still stop the puck. After all, he's only three and half years removed from leading the Ducks to a Stanley Cup. There's still gas in the tank, he says, and Thursday night was an important start for him.
A year ago, with the same two teams on the ice for opening night, the Canadiens took an overtime decision here at Air Canada Centre, one Burke believed set the Leafs back mentally.
Well, they only won once in their opening 13 games, so something was definitely wrong. So, yes, it's only one game, but it's a win that matters on many levels for this club. There's pressure to get off to a better start and avoid the deep hole that ruined their 2009-10 season.
But as Wilson reminded everyone after Thursday night's opener, this isn't the same team. "We have better people, better personnel," he said.
Still, Wilson doesn't want his players to get too excited.
"I'm going to ban all newspapers from the room tomorrow and make sure the TV's not on, because I'm sure you've already planned a Stanley Cup parade," the coach said.
Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf missed a few shifts early in the third period after it appeared an opponent's skate cut through his sock.
"He got a skate cut on his leg," Wilson said. "He went in and got it stitched up and came back. It's nothing serious. It was just to stop the bleeding."
Beating the Habs
Giguere is a Montreal native, but he took tremendous delight in beating his hometown team. "I grew up cheering for the Nordiques,'' he said with a smile.
The atmosphere for Thursday's opener was electric and Giguere fed off that.
"It doesn't get any better than a Leafs-Montreal game, so that was a great experience."