Game 638 – Maple Leafs 3, Canadiens 2 (OT)

Game 638
Maple Leafs 3, Canadiens 2 (OT)
Saturday, February 20, 1999
Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario

New building; familiar hero.

On a night in which choppy ice, an oddly disconnected crowd and a continuing Maple Leafs lethargy threatened to ruin the opening of the Air Canada Centre, it was veteran Steve Thomas who salvaged what could have been a disheartening and unsteady step into history for Toronto.

One goal can’t make everything right. Only time and attention to detail will fix the glitches in the Leafs’ new building.

But when Thomas chipped in a backhand, the conversion of an excellent cross-ice pass from Ladislav Kohn, it cast the evening in a whole new light. The overtime winner, at 3:48 of the extra frame, capped an ugly, uneven game with euphoric celebration.

“It’s an incredible feeling to score the game-winning goal, especially in the first game in this building. We needed these two points desperately,” said Thomas.

“If you’ve ever scored a goal in overtime in any sport it’s an incredible feeling. I was just lucky to be that guy tonight.”

Lucky? Not really. Thomas reaped the rewards of driving to the net. And the 35-year-old has made a career of being opportunistic. This was Thomas’ ninth regular-season overtime goal. That ties him with Mario Lemieux for the NHL record.

The stick and puck from the final goal last night are headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame because of the historic moment.

“I don’t know why that is, why I’ve been able to get so many overtime goals,” said Thomas, who has the honour of scoring in the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens and, now, the first game at the Air Canada Centre.

“When I go out I want to score that overtime goal. That’s my mindset.”

But this night wasn’t about Thomas’ goal, even though it made the Leafs 5-0-4 in overtime this season. It was about the bigger goal of completing a move to a new home and getting on with the rest of their season. That, despite the win, was not a complete success.

The opening ceremonies – highlighted by the unfurling of the team’s Stanley Cup banners and new banners for the numbers honoured by the club – were wonderfully understated. Unfortunately so was the game.

It never captured the emotion and excitement fans have come to expect from this normally heated Montréal / Toronto rivalry. And the Air Canada Centre, supposedly built for noise, was oddly devoid of atmosphere.

“It felt like a test for both the fans and the players. Even the Montréal players seemed confused out there,” said captain Mats Sundin, who continued his recent resurgence with a goal and an assist.

“Part of the problem,” added winger Derek King, “is that it wasn’t a very exciting game. There was a lot of dump it in and chase. Dump it out and chase. I’m sure if we have a 7-6 game, you’ll hear the crowd.”

The lack of flow in the game was impacted by several factors, including what coach Pat Quinn called “lousy ice.”

As the game wore on, the same problems players had noticed during practice surfaced again.

The ice became choppy and snowy. That made it very difficult to complete passes – very evident as the Leafs went 0 for 5 on the power play. Then if the players tried to use the boards or glass, they were unfamiliar with how the puck would play and consequently it often went shooting down the ice away from the action.

“As we get into this building, it’s not going to be an easy adjustment,” said Quinn. “We knew there’d be some stress involved with it.”

The adjustments don’t only have to be made by the players. The platinum box holders created a bizarre scene at the start of each period when they were tardy returning from their boxes that are tucked under the stands. The result was that the lower seating area was essentially empty for the first few minutes following the puck drop.

“That was kind of a weird situation. It took away a little from the atmosphere,” said Thomas.

While this has been a historic and mostly fun two weeks for the players – with the closing of the Gardens, a parade, the opening of the Air Canada Centre, dinners and charity events – most of them are glad to have it over with.

Many suggested it was a trial run for the post-season when both pressure and attention will be turned up on the team. But they are anxious to get back to the preparation, and repairing their game, for the stretch drive.

“I’m a fourth-line guy who doesn’t play much and I’m absolutely wasted,” said Kris King.

“It’s almost like it was a lot of stress. We really enjoyed it but most teams don’t have to go through tension and questioning in the middle of a season.”

Story originally published in The Toronto Star, February 21, 1999; photo property of Leafs Alumni

1st Period
TOR GOAL – 06:04 – Warriner (Markov, D. King)
TOR PEN – 10:00 – Johnson, delay of game
MTL PEN – 12:56 – Recchi, holding
MTL GOAL – 15:42 – Thornton (Recchi, Stevenson)
TOR GOAL – 17:16 – Sundin (Thomas, Karpovtsev)

2nd Period
MTL PEN – 06:48 – Corson, roughing
TOR PEN – 06:48 – Valk, charging
MTL PEN – 15:12 – Recchi, cross checking
TOR PEN – 15:34 – Côté, slashing

3rd Period
TOR PEN – 01:14 – Berezin, high sticking double minor
TOR PEN – 01:37 – Valk, slashing
MTL PP2 GOAL – 01:41 – Malakhov (Recchi, Zholtok)
MTL PEN – 06:52 – Corson, fighting major
TOR PEN – 06:52 – Domi, fighting major
MTL PEN – 08:09 – Brunet, delay of game
MTL PEN – 11:11 – Rivet, interference
MTL PEN – 19:27 – Koivu, hooking

TOR GOAL – 03:48 – Thomas (Kohn, Sundin)

TOR – Joseph (W, 28-30)
MTL – Hackett (L, 21-24)

TOR – 6+10+6+2 = 24
MTL – 7+6+16+1 = 30

TORGoaltenders: Curtis Joseph. Defence: Bryan Berard, Sylvain Côté, Alexander Karpovtsev, Danny Markov, Jason Smith, Dmitri Yushkevich. Forwards: Sergei Berezin, Tie Domi, Mike Johnson, Derek King, Kris King (A), Ladislav Kohn, Igor Korolev, Steve Sullivan, Mats Sundin (C), Steve Thomas (A), Garry Valk, Todd Warriner.
MTLGoaltenders: Jeff Hackett. Defence: Patrice Brisebois, Brett Clark, Vladimir Malakhov, Stéphane Quintal (A), Craig Rivet, Eric Weinrich. Forwards: Sylvain Blouin, Benoît Brunet, Shayne Corson, Vincent Damphousse (C), Saku Koivu, Patrick Poulin, Mark Recchi (A), Martin Rucinsky, Brian Savage, Turner Stevenson, Scott Thornton, Sergei Zholtok.

TOR – 32-20-4 (.607)
MTL – 23-28-8 (.458)


Mats Sundin (TOR)
⭐⭐ Mark Recchi (MTL)
⭐⭐⭐ Curtis Joseph (TOR)