TORONTO — John Tavares let out a big sigh of relief during Wednesday's player introductions.
The Toronto Maple Leafs did the same thing after an ugly win.
Auston Matthews scored his second goal of the night at 1:01 of overtime as the Leafs squeezed out a 3-2 victory against the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL's regular-season opener.
Matthews took a feed from Patrick Marleau off the rush and beat Carey Price upstairs past the blocker to send the crowd at Scotiabank Arena into a frenzy.
"It was a perfect pass," Matthews said. "Patty had me there and I was able to just get it over him."
But for much of the game, it was Montreal that had the upper hand as Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen was forced to make 34 saves, including 15 in the third period, to bail out his teammates on a number of sloppy sequences.
"They kind of outworked us," Matthews said. "A lot we can learn moving forward."
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was happy with the victory, but not how his team got there.
"Montreal played with great effort and great structure," he said. "In the end, we won the game, but we have to work way harder and play way better than we did tonight."
Tavares, with his first for Toronto, had the home side's other goal. The product of nearby Oakville, Ont., signed a massive US$77-million, seven-year contract with the Leafs on July 1, joining the team he grew up cheering for and instantly turned into a Stanley Cup contender.
He received a raucous ovation when his name was announced as the final player to come out of the tunnel before puck drop, and seemed relieved to finally be in a game that mattered after so much hype.
"It was tremendous," Tavares said of the crowd reaction. "To have that type of welcoming from this fanbase and this city is pretty special."
"I'm sure it's a big sigh of relief for him to just kind of get the monkey off the back and just go play now," Matthews said. "I can't imagine what he's gone through the last three, four months and all the hype leading into his first game here."
Nazem Kadri added two assists for the Leafs, who enter the season with sky-high expectations as fans dream of an end to Toronto's 51-year Cup drought.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, are loathe to use the word "rebuild" despite the trade of captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights, but showed well in their first game of 2018-19.
"Definitely encouraging, the effort that every single player made," said Price, who made 23 saves. "If we keep playing like that with that type of effort I think we're going to get rewarded."
Artturi Lehkonen and Andrew Shaw scored for Montreal, while Max Domi — the son of former Leafs tough guy Tie Domi — had two assists in his debut with the Canadiens.
Tied 2-2 in the third period, Montreal came close to taking the lead on a power play when Tomas Tatar hit the post. Domi then had another chance on a bouncing puck that had Andersen desperately flailing in his crease.
While the Leafs were outshot 15-7 in the period, a down-and-out Price, who missed almost half of last season through injury, made an incredible pad stop on Kasperi Kapanen just before the buzzer to end regulation.
"He made a lot of diving saves," Matthews said. "It looks like it's going to go in the back of the net and Carey sticks his leg out or his arm and he makes the save.
"That's why he's one of the best goalies."
After the teams traded goals in the first, they did the same late in the second.
Tavares moved past Matthew Peca and roofed a shot over Price at 18:07 for his first as a Leaf, but the Canadiens got a late power play and levelled things when Shaw beat Andersen upstairs with 12.3 seconds left on the clock. Shaw was playing his first game in nearly seven months after suffering a knee injury March 13.
Montreal's Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the first player born in the 2000s to suit up in an NHL game, picked up an assist. The rookie centre, who only turned 18 in July, also became the second-youngest player in Canadiens' history to record a point.
Andersen, who set a franchise record for wins last season with 38, made a good pad stop on Brendan Gallagher early in the second before Price matched that save with a lunging effort at the other end on Marleau.
Tatar then rattled Andersen's mask with a backhand and Paul Byron hit the post for Montreal moments later.
Price was there again with 2:34 remaining when he blocked Josh Leivo's effort on a 2-on-1.
Montreal outshot Toronto 6-1 to open the game before Lehkonen banked a wraparound off Ron Hainsey at 9:34 of the first.
The Leafs picked things up almost immediately and had already come close on a couple of good opportunities when their top-heavy first power-play unit went to work. Matthews took a feed from Morgan Rielly at the left faceoff dot and used a subtle toe drag to change the angle before whipping a shot beyond Price's glove at 12:57 as Toronto briefly exhaled.
"They came out jumping," Matthews said. "They work hard. I think a lot of people have written them off, but they're hungry."
Notes: Montreal head coach Claude Julien sent a strong message to his team before puck drop by making 30-year-old defenceman Karl Alzner and 35-year-old centre Tomas Plekanec healthy scratches on opening night. ... Domi was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk in June.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press