The Leafs play their second game of the season under the canopy of a beautiful October day. After a fall of lowered expectations, the outlook is suddenly sky high.
A 3-2 win over the defending champion Red Wings will do that, as will tonight’s opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, Dion vs. Harper in the hockey arena.
It is impossible to tell someone unconnected to the Habs-Leafs rivalry the importance of the game, even if that importance is, this early in the season, partly symbolic. That’s the thing about Habs-Leafs, it mattered two years ago when the Leafs knocked the Habs out of the playoffs or in 1967, when the Leafs won their last Cup at the expense of Montreal. It matters now.
“Last year, playing in Dallas, the closest team we had was a two-and-a-half hour flight,” said Niklas Hagman, who put things in perspective nicely.
It amounts to a challenging start “We played the team that had the most points in the West in Detroit and now we play the team with the most points in the East in Montreal.”
“I know about Montreal’s tradition and I know they have good players,” said defenceman Jonas Frogren whose first game was as a dependable counterpoint to the more daring Mike Van Ryn.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson appreciates hockey history. He is, however, mindful of a letdown against the Habs who lost in Buffalo Friday night in penalty shots.
“I don’t know what kind of ceremony we’ll be having. I just want to make sure we don’t get too high for the ceremony and then bottom out later in the period and catch ourselves behind the eight-ball,” he said. “Montreal will be disappointed they didn’t win last night and they will be ready I’m sure.”
With Saku Koivu, Tomas Plekanec, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and several others, the Canadiens might be the fastest-skating team in the NHL. Wilson puts their footspeed above that of the Red Wings so the Leafs defensive pairings, Tomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn
, Carlo Colaiacovo and Pavel Kubina and Frogren and Van Ryn will be tested early and often.
It will be interesting to see if the Leafs can maintain the same steady, error-inducing forecheck as they unveiled in Detroit. The Leafs will roll out the same four lines, at least initially. They are Hagman with Jiri Tlusty and Mikhail Grabovsky, Nik Antropov, with Rob Blake and Alex Ponikarovsky, John Mitchell with Matt Stajan and Jamal Mayers and Steve Moore with John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin
Game time is 7 p.m.