It starts tonight and already it feels odd.
The Toronto Maple Leafs begin the season as underdogs tonight at home against the Buffalo Sabres. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
High time, after three straight playoff misses but as they enter the Coca-Cola Zero Fans First game, there is a new humility about the Maple Leafs.
The game is free, a tip of the hat to the thousands unaffiliated with corporations often crowded out of Air Canada Centre. A tailgate at the corner of York and Bremner will feature an alumni ball hockey tournament and a performance by The Watchmen.
The coach, Ron Wilson, is new and a proven winner. Darcy Tucker, a fan favourite is gone. Bryan McCabe is too. The longtime captain remains terminally undecided about a return.
Last year’s coach and general manager have been gassed and the masterful Cliff Fletcher underplays the projections for this year’s team. A year ago, Paul Maurice and John Ferguson guaranteed a playoff spot. Now their successors talk about renewal, a term usually in wide use after forest fires.
But they are wading in, beginning tonight and there will be plenty to see. A dazzling $8 million scoreboard will transfix patrons in every corner of ACC. There will be plenty of gadgetry and special features.
“This is more of a game for the fans,” said Wilson.
“I’ll be miked during the first period. Cujo’s playing the first period and then he’ll be miked on the bench. Nick Kypreos will be on the bench. Hopefully the fans can get an inside feel of what’s going on.”
There will be no shortage of auditions over the next eight games.
“My focus will be trying to get to know all the players, their tendencies and how they respond in certain situations,” Wilson said.
No one’s responses will be monitored more quickly than those of 18-year-old rookie Luke Schenn
. Schenn, the Leafs top pick this summer and fifth overall, will be paired with veteran Jeff Finger
“I’m excited to get my first NHL game under way,” Schenn said. “It’s a new experience so I’m sure I’ll get some butterflies. It’s going to be nice to see how I fit in.”
The same goes for Finger, signed away from the Colorado Avalanche in the off-season. The Leafs have had only two days of practice prior to today’s game so Finger, like most everyone else, is flying on instruments.
“I’m just excited to get going, you know,” Finger said. “I think all the players would agree that it’s nice to have just a few days of practice and finally get into a game. Short and sweet.”
The game will feature the return of Joseph, a fan-favourite in Toronto for four years as well as the initial appearance of Nikolai Kulemin
, a player so talented and defensively committed, some project him as a second-line winger right off the hop.
Mike Van Ryn, acquired for McCabe, will don the blue and white for the first time as will Ryan Hollweg.
Justin Pogge figures to play two periods in the game.
Here is the Leafs lineup for the game:Goalies:
Curtis Joseph, Justin PoggeDefence: Luke Schenn
, Jeff Finger
, Ian White, Carlo Colaiacovo, Mike Van Ryn, Staffan KronwallForwards:
Jiri Tlusty, Matt Stajan, Dominic Moore, Boyd Devereaux, Ben Ondrus, Mark Bell, John Mitchell, Nikolai Kulemin
, Ryan Hollweg, Darryl Boyce, Robbie Earl, Jason Blake