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Habs prove they can do it without a captain

10/9/2014



TORONTO -- If you believe in symbolism on opening night, the Montreal Canadiens couldn't have scripted any better.

All four goals were scored by alternate captains -- the sport's most iconic franchise going without an actual captain this season, a decision that wasn't universally well-received in the hockey-crazed market.

It fueled a common talking point all training camp long: with the offseason departures of captain Brian Gionta, vocal assistant Josh Gorges and respected veteran Daniel Briere, among others, would the young Habs overcome the leadership void?

It's only one night, of course, but the alternate captains made one heck of a statement in Wednesday's 4-3 thriller over the host Toronto Maple Leafs: Max Pacioretty scored 4:42 into the season on a beauty of a rush that left Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf in his wake; Tomas Plekanec had a pair of goals on a night where he was an absolute beast, from the penalty kill to his 59 percent success rate in the faceoff circle; and P.K. Subban scored a big third-period goal and was electric all night long.

The fourth alternate captain, veteran Andrei Markov, was solid as well in leading the team with a game-high 26:17 minutes while helping to shut down Phil Kessel.

Who needs a captain when your four alternates play like that, right?

"Good call by the coaches, I guess, by management," smiled Plekanec, whose bank-shot goal with 43 seconds left gave Montreal the win.

Plekanec was a man possessed, easily the best player on either team, as reflected by being named the game’s first star. The Leafs could barely touch the puck when his line with Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher was on the ice.

It's a reminder of just how important Plekanec remains on this team, despite the obvious growth plan of this team around the younger core.

The 31-year-old Czech center could easily have deserved the captaincy on his own. But he'd be the last guy to complain.

"Obviously, it's a great honor when you're talking about the captain of the Montreal Canadiens," said Plekanec. "Being in Montreal so long, I guess, a lot of people saw me as a top candidate. But I think they made a good call by going with the four A's. We'll figure it out next year."

Another key leader on this team, stud goalie Carey Price, had an interesting answer when asked by ESPN.com after his media scrum following Wednesday's game who was one of the more vocal players in the room between periods in the opening game.

"Manny, for sure, Manny Malhotra," said the Olympic champion goaltender.

The 34-year-old newcomer didn't get an "A" on his uniform, but it's clear from Price's comments that Malhotra will also have a major role to play in helping feel that leadership void.

But the most pleasing sight for the head coach? Michel Therrien, when asked about his alternate captains, directed his heaviest praise for one particular player.

"I thought P.K. was really good. He [made the] right decisions, jumped in the play at the right time. That's a good sign of maturity," Therrien said. "This is what we’re looking for with his game. He looked like a real quarterback for us tonight."

Playing in his first game since signing an eight-year, $72 million contract during the offseason, Subban looked carefree and

confident as he dangled in and out of traffic and controlled large moments of the game.

Looks like the $9 million man is going to be all right.

"Our attention to detail, just paying attention to the details in our structure, I thought guys did it well," Subban said of his team's game, deflecting individual praise. "And the times we didn't do it, there were guys on the bench letting guys know, saying, 'Hey, you've got to be better.' I said it at the start of the year: We need 22 leaders, not four. Today it seemed like there was no passengers on our team. Everybody was held accountable, and everybody was holding themselves accountable and doing what they're supposed to do."

If you're looking for signs of a young team responding to adversity, what better example than the Canadiens coming right back 96 seconds after the Leafs tied the game 3-3 on a fluky goal by getting one of their own bank goals to win it.

There were no evident signs of panic, despite the bedlam at Air Canada Centre when Morgan Rielly's goal tied it late for the Leafs.

"We're a resilient group in here," Subban said. "It doesn't surprise me that we came right back. We know how important the first shift is after you score a goal and after you give up a goal. I'm happy with the way our team played today."

Kozun, Percy impress

Leafs rookie Brandon Kozun did not look out of place in his first NHL game, using his speed and getting his first NHL point when his shot from the slot was redirected by Nazem Kadri.

"I would've felt better if we won the game," Kozun said of getting his first NHL point. "I think I can be better," he added of his overall game.

"I don’t know, I just don't think I had as much jump as I usually have."

The kid's being hard on himself; I didn't think he was too bad at all.

Blueliner Stuart Percy also looked good in his first NHL game, showing poise with the puck. He’s not flashy, but he makes good decisions.

"I thought Percy was very good," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "He plays well above his age. I thought that he, not only on the goal, but the way that he moves the puck out of our zone, the patience that he has ... he's a really good player for a young guy coming into the league. I think he showed that he's a very mature player, especially coming out of the defensive zone moving the puck and having the patience to do that. It’s not easy to do that in this league."

Tokarski goes Thursday

Therrien said backup netminder Dustin Tokarski would start Thursday night's game in Washington as the Habs open with back-to-back games.