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Feeling Of New Season Never Gets Old

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
It doesn’t change. Not with years of experience or a player yet to be mentioned in the NHL Guide and Record Book.

It is the same for Americans, Canadiens, Swedes or Finns, college guys, European sporting academy graduates, players from major junior and U.S. colleges.

They are all thoroughbreds at the gate. Tonight the Leafs play the Canadiens to open the 2009-2010 campaign for both teams at Air Canada Centre.

“I feel like a little kid,” said 36-year old Jason Blake. “It’s a new team, a new kind of new everything. We had a great pre-season and we have come together in a short amount of time. We are excited.”

Someone in the stands at the morning skate was saying that professional sports is about mass amnesia. Teams that limped home 25 lengths behind the leader make changes in the off-season and hope somehow washes away cynicism.

But it is also true that there are teams that surprise, confound and overachieve.

And it is also true that the Maple Leafs will ice a roster with eight new faces, Viktor Stalberg, Colton Orr, Wayne Primeau, Rickard Wallin, Francois Beauchemin, Garnet Exelby, Mike Komisarek and Jay Rosehill.

Another, Phil Kessel is coming and an acclaimed, untested goalie, Jonas Gustavsson won’t wait much longer. Nor will Tyler Bozak or Christian Hanson.

“It’s awesome. This is what people dream of,” Blake said. “We have a couple of new guys and Viktor Stalberg playing his first NHL game tonight. It doesn’t get any better than a Montreal-Leafs game.”

Rickard Wallin is 29 years old. He played six games with the Minnesota Wild, and went back home to Sweden, content to finish his career there.

But the Leafs noticed him while scouting Gustavsson and he survived a training camp that included a move from centre to wing.

“I never thought I would be coming back,” he said. Sitting in this room this morning made me feel really proud to be here,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better game to start off.”

Wallin, a solid, lower-case player, saw no problem in playing the wing on a line with John Mitchell and Lee Stempniak.

“When I was younger I played there a lot,” he said. “Everything is new anyway. If I was playing centre I still would have to get used to the smaller ice and everything else.”

Keith Primeau, who will centre a palooka line with Orr and Rosehill, is a Toronto guy playing his first came as a Leaf after a 15-year odyssey through Buffalo, Tampa, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Boston and Calgary.

“I feel the nerves even more so now being back in Toronto and playing close to home,” he said. “I always get butterflies but being here they’re really strong. Once we get the warmup and the first shift over we’ll be fine.”

“It’s obviously a special day,” said Mike Komisarek, who sees his old team in the opener. “Tonight is the night. It’s my former team and I want to get off to a great start. Centre stage. It doesn’t get better than this as a player.”

The Leafs are expected to scratch Nikolai Kulemin, Jeff Finger and Jamal Mayers. Mike Van Ryn and Kessel are not included for medical reasons. All were regular last year.

Mikhail Grabovski, another former Hab, will centre the first line with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Niklas Hagman. Matt Stajan centres the second unit with Blake and the flashy Stalberg. John Mitchell is between Wallin and Lee Stempniak.

The first pairing on defence will consist of Tomas Kaberle and Komisarek. Francois Beauchemin, very effective in the pre-season is paired with Luke Schenn. The third pairing features Garnet Exelby and Ian White.

Vesa Toskala will get the start between the pipes.

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