Alright. Tim Connolly is out injured, Tyler Bozak is back centering Phil Kessel, Clarke MacArthur is suspended, Nazem Kadri is also injured, and Dave Steckel and Philippe Dupuis are on our third line. This probably wasn’t exactly how you pictured the season opener shaping up, but any concerns go by the wayside tonight because the Leafs, meaningful hockey and Hockey Night in Canada are back for the 2011-12 season.
The season-opening opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, didn’t make any major offensive upgrades on their 23rd best offence in the off-season and will attempt to make the playoffs on the back of strong goaltending from Carey Price, team defence and special teams again this season. Erik Cole (who sucked the last time he left Carolina) was their lone addition, while Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski were lost off the backend.
Given the strength of the Northeast Division this season, we’ll hope that the loss of James Wisniewski to Columbus in free agency (and with Markov still out after his second major knee reconstruction) will hurt the Canadiens right where they received a major portion of their goals for – the powerplay. The Habs ranked tied with the Leafs last season in overall offence (213 goals for) but finished with a top ten ranked powerplay. 57 of their 213 goals came on the powerplay, the highest ratio of powerplay goals to overall goals scored of any team in the league. Â Undoubtedly, however, much of the special teams success can be attributed to the strength of the systems of Jacques Martin and his staff.
With Tim Connolly, Nazem Kadri, and Clarke MacArthur out of the lineup tonight, it seems to add up to a low scoring tilt that could come down to the battle of the special teams and the goaltenders, not to heap even more pressure on James Reimer, who is setting out on his first full NHL campaign as a starting NHL netminder. Three goals won five of these two teams’ six meetings last season.
What last season’s start only reaffirmed was the lesson not to get too high or low too early in the season, but Brian Burke has stressed that the team must be in the hunt by the 20-game mark to have a real shot at the playoffs. While anybody who even passively followed the Leafs since the lockout could’ve told you that, the Leafs start out the schedule with five games at home and a relatively weak series of opponents. It’s far from the full lineup tonight and that should be kept in mind, but let’s hope we take a good first step towards Burke’s goal tonight.
Notes: I’m sure we’ll see Steckel take the important draws in the defensive zone and on penalty kill for his line; some combination of Steckel/Dupuis and Lombardi/Brown to make up the PK forward units; could definitely see Lombardi as an option for Wilson to move up the lineup if he looks sharp and the Leafs’ offence doesn’t.
A season preview video to get the blood pumping. Happy season opener!