It certainly seemed like a new era tonight in the ACC as a much more motivated and industrious Leafs team took to the ice and out-played the Buffalo Sabres in a 7-4 win for the new-look Blue and White.
Neither team could honestly say they put forth the best they could offer, but that’s the nature of these early pre-season games. It still can be said that there were some promising signs from a Leafs stand-point.
For the first 40 minutes, the Maple Leafs played sound defensive hockey. The game seemed to open up as fatigue set in towards the later stages, which is understandable considering the abbreviated start to training camp. Carlo Colaiacovo was the finest of the bunch, playing physical, two-way hockey and emanating refreshed confidence. It’s unquestionable that Colaiacovo is worthy of a top four spot, the obvious caveat being that he must stay healthy. Mike Van Ryn, while less convincing defensively, showed his vision and puck-handling ability on the power-play and unleashed a few dangerous shots from the point. Staffan Kronwall’s physical presence was evident all evening. Ian White was impressive from the blue-line out, but his own zone coverage left something to be desired. His missed mark out front of the net late sort of sums up why his Leaf tenure might not last much longer than the pre-season.
Luke Schenn handled himself well as an 18-year-old experiencing his first NHL game. He was by no means physically out of place and kept up despite the transition in speed from the rookie tourney to the NHL. It’s definitely a positive that he got the first one under his belt without any serious blemishes. I was pleased that Schenn didn’t try to overextend himself in order to stand out. He played his game and played it effectively. Line-mate Jeff Finger was quietly solid.
The defensive coverage system Ron Wilson’s been advocating seemed to be sinking in to some degree. Even Jason Blake took care of his defensive assignments in a promising start to his second season.
The Dominic Moore, Ryan Hollweg and Ben Ondrus line was the tone-setter for the Leafs. The pace, fiery fore-check and drive that characterized the team’s first two periods was epitomized by this line. Hollweg took no time in asserting himself in his new setting. He’s not really the enforcer the Leafs lack, but he stirs the pot and animates every time he’s on the ice. A good, clean hit on Sabres’ Andrew Peters not only earned his team a power-play after Peters and Pat Kaleta retaliated, but got Peters ejected from the game. At the cost of the occasional bad penalty, Hollweg will provide a galvanizing presence to the team and at least try his hand at dropping his gloves, which is more than you can say about the vast majority of last year’s group.
Dominic Moore made a real case for himself as potentially the team’s third line center with a two-goal, workmanlike performance. Boyd Devereaux, who will likely skate on Moore’s wing on the 4th line come the regular season, matched his showing with a pair of his own. Moore was very efficient in the face-off circle at a 73% success rate, the lone Leafs center to finish above 50%.
After a shaky start in which he was beat near-post, Joseph played a decent first period. Justin Pogge took the reigns in period two. He was flat out outstanding in the second, showing considerable confidence and exquisite rebound control in making 15 saves. Pogge’s inconsistency reared its head a bit in period three when he went down early on the third goal.
Nik Kulemin was mostly a background figure and seemed confused at times. It was obviously an adjustment for him playing a new brand of game in a smaller rink alongside unfamiliar line-mates. I thought his line was mostly ineffective and seemed incompatible. It will be interesting to see how he fares alongside his anticipated line-mates come the start of the season in Alex Steen and Niklas Hagman.
Jiri Tlusty was more involved than he typically was last season and seems to have grown in speed and confidence.
It was just the first game of what they call the silly season, but I’m hoping that tonight’s game was indeed a harbinger that this team will be far more fun to watch than that of the previous three seasons.
The new Maple Leaf era will begin on a nostalgic note as Curtis Joseph is the anticipated starter between the posts in tonight’s pre-season opener inside the ACC.
After the first, Joseph will be replaced by future number one hopeful Justin Pogge, who will play the final 40 minutes. In an event geared towards the fans, Joseph will be miked for all to hear during the second and third periods, according to Mike Ulmer at mapleleafs.com. Head coach Ron Wilson will be miked up during the first.
Sharing the spotlight alongside Pogge will be fifth overall pick Luke Schenn, Russian incomer Nikolai Kulemin and free agent signing Jeff Finger. Jeff Finger and Luke Schenn are expected to comprise the team’s first blue-line pairing. Line combinations aren’t yet confirmed, but it’s expected Darryl Boyce, Robbie Earl and Nik Kulemin will comprise one of four forward lines. Other new faces in the line-up will include Mike Van Ryn and Ryan Hollweg.
Tonight marks the beginning of a learning curve for the new-look Leafs who are adjusting to a new coaching staff and consequently a new system and attitude.
The anticipated roster for tonight’s tilt vs. the Sabres is as follows:
Nikolai Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty, Jason Blake, Matt Stajan, Dominic Moore, Boyd Devereaux, Ben Ondrus, Darryl Boyce, Mark Bell, John Mitchell, Ryan Hollweg, Robbie Earl
Luke Schenn, Jeff Finger, Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White, Staffan Kronwall, Mike Van Ryn
Curtis Joseph (1st period)
Justin Pogge (2nd + 3rd period)
Sportsnet’s rumoured line combinations:
From Micheal Aldred:
It all begins tonight. Despite it being the â€œfree gameâ€ as sponsored by Coca-Cola, the Leafs will look to start off fresh with a win tonight against the Buffalo Sabres. Nick Kypreos will join Ron Wilson on the bench for the first period, and although it will have a bit of a â€œfun feelâ€ atmosphere, donâ€™t expect Ron Wilson to be that loose when the puck drops.
Now is the time when Wilson gets to put his methods in place; the players will learn the ropes in a real game experience and there will likely be plenty of faults, but just as the grass is always greener on the other side, there will be a noticeable amount of change in attitude as players will be trying to prove what they are capable of to the new coach and his system. A significant style to watch for is players using both hands on their sticks. This should primarily prevent them from reaching out and taking holding penalties, but it will also allow them to be faster and stronger at getting the puck out of the zone when they come in contact in the defensive end.
The Leafs released their opening night lineup with a few noticeable absentees we will see later on in the pre-season. Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina will have the night off with Jonas Frogren on defense, while Nick Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and newcomers Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers will be well rested for Wednesday nightâ€™s rematch. Vesa Toskala was also given an opening night break as the goaltending will be fronted by Curtis Joseph with Justin Pogge taking over for the final forty minutes.
When asked about Steenâ€™s position on the club, Wilson explained that they will â€œlet him play in the middle (between Niklas Hagman and Nikolai Kulemin for now.) He’s still a young player and maybe there’s been a bit too much pressure placed on him early in his career.” But the fans will have to wait a few more nights to see that pairing as Steen was also given the night off.
From Ron Guillet…
It has arrived. After months of psychiatric help and forcing myself to watch football, I can finally go back to destroying my social life and concentrating on hockey.
The Leafs are back in action and ready to make their pre-season debut. Many questions will begin to unfold and day-by-day the Leafsâ€™ final roster will take its form.
The Leafs lace â€˜em up against their division rivals tonight, the Buffalo Sabres. As always, the two should present a heated affair with goals a plenty. While the line-upâ€™s are nowhere near their final state, no one has to remind the players about the animosity that resides with these clubs.
The Leafs will be icing the following line-up:
Luke Schenn, Jeff Finger
Ian White, Carlo Colaiacovo
Mike Van Ryn, Staffan Kronwall.
1 – Jiri Tlusty, Matt Stajan, Jason Blake
2 – Nikolai Kulemin, Robbie Earl, Darryl Boyce
3 – John Mitchell, Mark Bell, Dominic Moore
4 – Boyd Devereaux, Ben Ondrus, Ryan Hollweg
Looking at that, I think weâ€™ll be in for an exciting match-up (and probably a fight or two with Ondrus and Hollweg together). Most interesting is the debuts of Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn though. Both will experience the Toronto fan base for the first time, but adjusting to the pressure shouldnâ€™t take too long. â€œI have some butterflies for sure, but Iâ€™m most interested to see where I fit in,â€ Schenn said at todayâ€™s morning skate. â€œItâ€™s new territory, a different pace, a lot quicker, but itâ€™s good to have the world junior experience in my back pocket. Iâ€™m looking forward to putting on a Leaf jersey for the first time.â€
Schenn should see ample ice-time tonight with line-mate Jeff Finger. The duo are being expected to implement the â€˜â€™sandpaperâ€™â€™ element that the Leafs are searching for. And looking at the forward lines, being aggressive shouldnâ€™t be a problem tonight.
The Leafsâ€™ offensive attack will be spread out between two lines, with line 3 and 4 serving as the grinders. The first two lines arenâ€™t incredibly talented (Jason Blake leading the charge), but they should display some solid, two-way hockey.
A player to look-out for tonight will be Nikolai Kulemin, the Russian sniper whose impact on the Leafs is currently uncertain. This should be a great opportunity for him to present his game and introduce to Leafs fans what heâ€™s all about.
In goal, the Leafs will be starting Curtis Joseph in the first period and play Justin Pogge in the 2nd and 3rd periods. Pogge impressed Leafs fans last preseason, so itâ€™ll be interesting to see what he brings to the crease this time around.
Buckle up, Leafs hockey is back!
Leafs win 3-2 tonight
Kulemin, Boyce and Blake are the goal scorers.