Talk about spoiling the party.
In front of a sellout crowd that turned out to celebrate the Red Wings' Stanley Cup triumph last spring, the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs ruined the night by taking advantage of some Detroit mistakes, then hanging on for a 3-2 victory over the defending champs Thursday night.
The Leafs haven't made the playoffs in the last three seasons, costing coach Paul Maurice his job. But under new coach Ron Wilson — and icing a lineup that included four rookies, including their 2008 top draft pick Luke Schenn — the Leafs were disciplined in their own zone and opportunistic when they got the chance to score. Goaltender Vesa Toskala did his part by stopping 35 shots and standing tall in the final minutes when the Wings pressured the Leafs in an effort to tie the game.
The Red Wings started the evening by raising a banner to the rafters to commemorate their Stanley Cup victory in June. Members of that team — including Dominik Hasek and Dallas Drake, who retired after the Cup win — were on the ice as the 11th championship banner went up at Joe Louis Arena. With an orchestra playing, Gordie Howe and other former Red Wings passed the white banner with red stitching to current standouts such as Nicklas Lidstrom on the ice.
The Stanley Cup was on display, atop a puck-shaped pedestal, along with six other trophies Detroit won last season.Wilson opted to have his players watch the pregame festivities, instead of keeping them in the dressing room.
"I have no problem applauding the Red Wings for what they've done because we'd like to get there ourselves," Wilson said.
Leafs forward Jason Blake thought watching the celebration gave his team a boost.
"The ceremony was great," Blake said. "I think it inspired our young guys." Once the puck dropped, Detroit outshot Toronto 14-10 in the opening period, but the Leafs got the only goal at 19:34 thanks to a mistake by goaltender Chris Osgood. During a Toronto power play, Osgood accidentally swept the puck in front of his own net, where defenseman Pavel Kubina swept it in for the first goal of the season.
The Leafs made it 2-0 at 15:04 of the second period when Dominic Moore chipped a loose puck over Osgood, stunning the sellout crowd at Joe Louis Arena.
But the fans weren't silent for long. Tomas Holmstrom got the Wings on the board at 16:28 with a no-look goal — his back was to Toskala when he deflected the puck into the net.
"Wake up!" Detroit coach Babcock shouted at his players during a third-period break.
They did. The Leafs' 3-1 lead lasted less than two minutes before Holmstrom scored his second of the night at 9:20 with Matt Stajan in the penalty box for high sticking.
The Wings poured it on while looking for the tie. Toskala's best late save came on a streaking Mikael Samuelsson with three minutes to play. The Wings got a power play when Jamal Mayers flipped the puck over the glass with 30 seconds left and was penalized for delay of game, but the Leafs hung on.
"This was a big win for us," Blake said. "We have a lot of new faces in the room, a younger group of guys. We'll have highs and lows; we have to manage them."
Babcock was wary of how his players would play after the ceremony, but refused to make it an excuse.
"I don't accept that as any reason for anything," Babcock said. "The bottom line is, we found out what level the NHL is played at tonight. They were willing to compete harder and win more battles than we were." Osgood, playing in his first season-opener for the Wings since 2000, stopped 26 shots and insisted his team didn't have an emotional letdown after the elaborate ceremony.
"I wouldn't say it's a Stanley Cup hangover," Osgood said. "Toronto has improved from last year."
Detroit is trying to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champs since the Wings did it in 1997 and 1998. The defending champions quickly found out how difficult it will be simply to win during the regular season.
"We're going to see a lot of teams playing us like that, working real hard defensively," Lidstrom said. "That's what we're going to see throughout the season."