It's Opening Day! I'm Blogging All Day, All Night!
/ Toronto Maple Leafs
At 10:13 a.m. the ice at Air Canada Centre was pristine and gleaming under the lights.
A moment later Kris Newbury stides onto the ice. Summer is over. Last year was last year. The Anaheim ducks are the only team with bragging rights. It all begins again.
The assembled media is, well, assembled. Leafs TV's Leafs Midday broadcasting the game day skate Live as I type. But because it's called Leafs Midday and starts at 10 a.m., it is, by my count, two hours early.
Everyone wants to know the starter for tonight's opener. The first guy off the ice is probably up.
I'll keep you posted.
What was quiet is now a din. Hockey skates, pucks ricocheting off crossbars and coach's whistles make the same sound they always do. Not so the sticks. They sound like hard glass. Technology has rendered the snap into a clap.
Andy Wozniewski should go tonight. He is the subject of my dissertation on tonight's Leafs TV pre-game show. Nothing too out of the ordinary. The piece wrestles with the question of what would happen if you hypnotized Wozniewski and convinced him he was Chris Chelios. That old chestnut.
Check it out on Leafs TV before the game.
Beside me, someone just wondered aloud who has Toskala in the goaltending pool.
And the winner of the Leafs’ opening night goaltending assignment is…nobody.
At least not officially.
For the first time in Toronto, Leafs coach Paul Maurice refused to confirm his goalie. Inquiring minds want to know, especially with the Ottawa Senators in town to open the season.
Here is what we know.
Incumbent Andrew Raycroft was off the ice first after the game-day skate, a good 10 or 15 minutes ahead of Vesa Toskala. That is usually the tell-tale sign. Raycroft was saying all the right things.
“It’s nice to be playing. I want to play. At least I’ll have gotten one game in this year. We’ll see how the rest of the 81 go.”
Raycroft also said he did not know for certain that he was playing.
But the notion of he starting, and Toskala, a heralded acquisition, holding off until tomorrow night in Ottawa, was an apt metaphor for how crazy it is too read too much into prognostication, Raycroft said.
“This is an example of why you just let it play out and let it see how it goes. It’s fitting for the rest of the season. Let’s just see how it plays out instead of taking three months to analyze who’s going to play the first game."
“Obviously the decision is not mine,” Toskala said, sounding a little glum. “Like I said, I’m just trying to be ready.”
Clearly, Maurice is opting to quell the talk about goaltending. The days of both goalies being available pre-game, an unthinkable notion during the tenure of Ed Belfour, for example, may be on the wane.
Maurice pointed to the usual difficulties hockey coaches point to in arguing that not announcing their goalies gives them a competitive edge. How the poor New Jersey Devils won all those years with their opponents knowing, knowing, they would be facing Martin Brodeur, remains a tough one.
Maurice, engaging as always, shared words with Howard Berger, the veteran reporter for the Fan 590 who doggedly asked why he had changed his policy.
“We will do it one way all year long,” said Maurice. You’ll come to appreciate the consistency…or not.”
The line drew a laugh. The policy may not.
I am at the corner of Front and Simcoe. There is a bank machine here. There are only a few of us in line. The guy ahead of me is a grandfatherly-type who looks like Ralph Bellamy.
There are also two women, one of whom wears biker togs. We are studiously quiet. People make more noise in church than in bank machine vestibules.
An unsavory looking guy leans in the corner. He would certainly be the shiftiest looking among us. He has an ostentatious forehead and cunning little eyes and a pompadour and he is clearly too thin for a guy who has spent a long uninterrupted string on the outside.
"I don't suppose anyone knows who is starting in goal tonight," I say.
"Raycroft" says the too-skinny dude.
And I wonder to myself, if too-skinny dude has this figured out, do the Senators know as well?
The 48th Highlanders are moving across the ice in a steady procession. The Highlanders are a nod to Conn Smythe’s love of the military but what a lot of people don’t know is the Leafs feisty founder actually wanted the 50th Highlanders for the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens. Sadly, they were already booked and thus a tradition was born.
Former Leafs goalie Glenn Healy was not in the procession. He joined a long list of Leaf luminaries including Frank Mahovlich and Claire Alexander who were not here. Neither was Dave Keon.
It will soon be time to see whether the guy from the bank was right and Andrew Raycroft is in goal. Raycroft is a great kid but he’s no poker player. The unspoken code is when the coach doesn’t tell the media who is playing, the player doesn’t either.
The Leafs honoured Joe Bowen before the game for his 25th year doing play-by-play. Johnny Bower, his longtime hero was on hand. As soon as Bower appeared, the crowd burst into spontaneously applause. There are no words to adequately describe the effect Johnny Bower has on people. He is the incarnation of kindness and it is immediately recognizable to people in person or via television. He is magical.
One anthem and Andrew Raycroft in goal. I need to get stock tips from that guy at the bank.
The Leafs resolve to stay out of the penalty box lasts eight seconds. Nik Antropov for hooking.
The Leafs kill the penalty and the two teams combine for about five minutes of superb play.
Antoine Vermette soars past Tomas Kaberle who makes a weak attempt and the Senators lead 1-0 just about eight minutes into the first. Heckuva goal. The crowd gives the Bronx cheer to Raycroft, who was beaten by a terrific shot, but nothing is said when Kaberle, handles the puck again after looking bad on the goal.
Jason Blake’s speed makes the Leafs tying goal happen midway through the first. Blake easily outraces an Ottawa defender to a loose puck. The puck skips to Nik Antropov who directs it to the Ottawa net and boom goes the dynamite.
The best player of the first period, not counting Vermette, is Ian White who is flashing a confidence unseen last year. What a nice player he can be.
The subject of a player generating a spectacular burst of confidence was kicked around in the pregame show. We were talking about Andy Wozniewski thinking he was Chris Chelios which you know is possible.
Sundin finds Antropov with six minutes left and bang, it's 2-1 Leafs but the Sens get it back when Daniel Alfredsson scores on a longish low shot that guarantees more grief for Raycroft who gave up too many similar goals last season.
It wasn't an altogether terrible goal, just not a good one. Kris Newbury fights that Wade "The Impaler" Redden after Chad Kilger is taken heavily into the boards behind the Ottawa net. Newbury wants to make his bones and Redden helped him out. It was Joe Corvo who took down Kilger.
With Bryan McCabe off for tripping, Mats Sundin takes a minor for slashing across the arm. Hockey players talk about not taking penalties the way heavy people talk about eventually going on a diet. No damage and we get to see McCabe come out of the box and play his first shift at forward since peewee.
The Leafs finally go ahead when Matt Stajan skates into open ice ande slaps a shot past Martin Gerber, glove high. If you didn’t count the goals, the most impressive Leafs would be Sundin, resurgent tonight in the opener, Pavel Kubina, as good as he looked anytime last year, White and, this is really noticeable, Alex Steen. The Senators, to be fair, offer a long list of watchable players including Mike Fisher and hardrock defenceman Anton Volchenkov. I would give Volchenkov the first night Norris. He does everything.
Redden fights again, this time with Bates Battaglia. He leaves bloodied. After a disconsolate season, Redden seems determined to earn his keep. When will his reign of terror end?
The Senators tie things with just a little bit more than five minutes left when Andrei Meszaros finds Dany Heatley uncovered at the bottom of the circle. Questionable strategy there. Heatley scores, as he would ten more times given ten more chances from that spot.
Spoke to Bryan Murray, the Sens’ GM between periods. He is impressed with the Leafs speed and noted the additional juice supplied by Blake. He just pledged $45 million to Heatley. Clearly he has a taste for speed.
10: 14 p.m.
With two minutes left in overtime, Heatley scores again through Raycroft’s pads.
Senators win 4-3.
It just goes to show you what happens when you give a guy $45 million.
So the Leafs get a point, which feels like a loss but still looks like a point.
Bright spots, there were plenty but now Vesa Toskala gets his chance in Ottawa. It was a team loss that nicely underscored the worth that has been done and the work that is to come.
Alex Steen garnered a ton of ice time and looked not a bit like the player who stumbled out of the gate last year.
The Leafs played last year's Stanley Cup finalist to a regulation draw. They lost 4-1 to the same Senators on Opening Night last year.
Blake was terrific, as was White. The Leafs are faster, they are better. Whether they are good enough, of course, will unfold, day by day, over the next seven months. Can’t wait.