After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the new look squad hit the ice Thursday night for their home opener against the arch rival Montreal Canadiens, and with it marked the true dawning of a new age in Leafs Nation.
While it’s true the hiring of Ron Wilson and Brian Burke will go down as the day the team began to turn the page on years of management misfortune, and the Dion Phaneuf day could very well end up being the trade that sparks the team forward much like the Doug Gilmour trade before it, Thursday night’s season premiere was really the first time since all this has taken place that it was truly a different roster.
Gone were the incumbents of past regimes, It was finally Brian Burke’s team. Â Having flipped the entire roster (sans Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger) Burke’s vision of the team could finally be implemented, his stamp beginning to form.
And it was, for one game at least, as advertised.
Checking line players checked, shadowing top lines ferociously. Â Scoring lines scored, looking dangerous on more shifts than not. Â Goaltender stood tall, making many a save that preserved the opening night victory. Â It was, for the most part, exactly how Burke and Ron Wilson would have drawn it up.
Tim Brent, who really wasn’t even on the radar when training camp opened a month or so ago, has surged through training camp, and has not only marked his spot out on the roster, but has seemingly carved out his niche.
Customary with any Brian Burke led team, the Leafs are employing what they hope will be two top six lines with speed and skill, and two bottom six lines with speed, some skill, and a whole lot of crashing and banging.
And it was Brent, similar to Sami Pahlsson in Anaheim, who earned the trust of Burke and Wilson, drawing key defensive assignments, and chipping in with important, key goals.
Brent, after an impressive first few shifts in which he shadowed the Canadiens top scoring unit, tipped in a Dion Phaneuf shot in what was a perfectly placed deflection that beat Canadiens goaltender Carey Price for the Maple Leafs first goal of the season.
With the checking line setting the tone, as they should, it was time for the heavy artillery to come out.
After a turnover by the Habs, Phil Kessel got behind Hal Gill, and the big man had zero chance of catching the speedy sniper, who put a nice move on Price for his first of the year, a goal which gave Toronto a 2-0 lead. Â For his efforts, Price was nearly rewarded with a spectacular save on Kessel, but could not keep his outstretched pad against the goal post.
Leafs fans remember of course, that it was a far cry from what Phil Kessel was doing this time one year ago.
Having gotten healthy and among the fittest players on the team over the course of the summer months, Kessel has come into the season looking like he has a chip on his shoulder, and an added gear, and truthfully, that’s just plain scary. Â A player who hasn’t yet reached the prime of his career, already with two 30 goal seasons under his belt, and vastly improving in conditioning, speed, and confidence could well be a recipe for disaster for the opposition.
In fact, for the most part the entire top unit was as advertised for the Leafs on Thursday night.
Bozak had his chances and made things happen, Versteeg wasn’t great in his first official night in a Leafs uniform, but did nearly put the game away with a deflection that trickled just wide of the gaping net.
And then there was balance from line two.
Grabovski seemed much more contained within himself, which is a positive for Leafs fans. Â He was still making a few little mistakes, such as carrying the puck too long, but overall his game was good. Â Kulemin was in a whole other gear at times, especially on the shift in which he drew a penalty, then preceded to nearly score twice on the ensuing delayed call.
The other third of the line, Clarke MacArthur, showed many why a lot of Leafs fans were excited in this “reclamation” project of sorts, as the former Buffalo Sabres forward pulled off a nice deke to give the Leafs a 3-1 lead in the third period. Â Leafs fans and management alike are hoping to see more of that from MacArthur as the season goes on.
And J.S. Giguere, named opening day starter by Ron Wilson virtually before training camp started, stood tall as a goaltender on Thursday night, making key saves and, at times, keeping the Leafs in a game when it was slipping away from them a little bit in their own zone.
While the team had a good game as a whole, there were certainly moments where shades of last year’s defensive structure came out, and when that happened, Giguere was there more often than not to bail out his defenseman, including three huge final second saves on Brian Gionta and P.K. Subban to secure the win for the Maple Leafs. Â Saves that no doubt would not have been there last year.
It was a perfect example for Leafs fans who has praised the goaltending situation all summer long. Â Where perhaps panic would set in and that tying goal would go in with the seconds ticking down, ripping a win from the hand of the team, was replaced by a calm, cool, and confident Giguere, who was up to the task and gave the team a Joseph or Belfour-esque goaltending performance.
And with that, an emotionally charged win over the rival Canadiens that featured flashes of a team that could be good more nights than not, it’s easy to see how fans could go overboard, but Ron Wilson did his best to be the voice of reason following the game.
“It’s only one game.”
And truthfully, it is.
One game a season does not make, and it will be up to the Toronto Maple Leafs team, and their fans to realize that there is still much work to be done.
On a big picture basis of course there is the clouded picture that is the Eastern Conference. Â With only four or five teams perennial playoff teams in the East, that leaves a muddy picture of teams battling for the last few spots in the NHL playoffs, which is good news a it leaves the race wide open, but bad news due to the hurdles teams must overcome in order to secure it.
On a smaller picture scale, there is still adjustments that need to be made as well, particularly on the defensive side of things.
While they had a good night helping the offensive game, truth is that for the most part the Leafs defense looked a little lost at times on the ice against the Canadiens Thursday night. Â Mike Komisarek and Carl Gunnarsson in particular struggled against the Habs forwards, and their lapses led to goals, and point blank chances for the Habs.
For the Leafs know, as do their management and fans, that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will be the Toronto Maple Leafs. Â It will take time to see the big picture become clearer for the team going forward.
It is hard to argue however, if even for one night, that Leafs fans didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.