Well, that wasn’t so bad.
The Toronto Maple Leafs began a season of modest expectations with a flashy performance, a 7-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres at Air Canada Centre.
The contest, the curtain-raiser for both teams, came in the Coca-Cola Zero Fans First game. Everyone got in free and everyone went home happy. Air Canada Centre was more than suitably bubbly and the team’s new $8 million scoreboard was smashing. Oh, the hockey players did pretty well too.
“The exhibition games are a chance for everybody to get back into the rhythm of the game and I thought today was a pretty good start for us,” said two-goal scorer Dominic Moore.
It didn’t start great. Carlo Colaiacovo took a penalty 38 seconds in and Marek Zagrapan ripped the game’s first shot through Leafs starter Curtis Joseph. This being the first shot of the exhibition season, the play should not impact his Hall of Fame eligibility. That’s Joseph’s eligibility. Marek Zagrapan’s chances speak for themselves.
“The first shot went in but it was good to get into it and start right away,” Joseph said. “It was a great crowd, a lot of energy in the building. There was a lot of cheering. It was really nice.”
The Leafs tied things midway through the period when Moore’s sharp angle shot somehow eluded starting Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller.
Colaiacovo pushed the Leafs in front when he grabbed a loose puck ripped a shot from the high slot past Miller with a minute to go in the first period.
The Leafs kept things rolling nicely in the second. Mark Bell showed mid-season polish when he collected a loose puck, drifted around a sliding Buffalo defenceman and found Boyd Devereaux for an easy tap-in.
Another spectacular pass, this one from Ian White put Robbie Earl in the clear midway through the second. Earl’s shot past Miller’s successor, Jhonas Enroth put the Leafs up 4-1.
Justin Pogge, the Leafs second goalie of the night, withstood a lengthy barrage at the end of the second when two Leaf defenders played with broken sticks. He looked absolutely poised and economical.
“It felt pretty good,” Pogge said. “You’ve got to see their first shot I let in but I was happy with the way I played.”
Ryan Hollweg, meanwhile, spent the first two periods of the game on spirited search-and-destroy missions. He traded punches in a short bout with Buffalo tough guy Andrew Peters in the first.
The second ended 4-1.
The Sabres edged a little closer when Philip Gogulla, yes that Philip Gogulla, hammered a close-in shot past Pogge, three minutes into the final frame.
A two-man advantage resulted in a Matt Stajan goal and a 5-2 lead with eight minutes to play. Mark Mancari’s rising shot got past Pogge with six minutes left for a 5-3 margin.
Moore scored his second goal of the game when he drove the net hard and the puck rolled past Enroth. The goal, coming as it did with five minutes left, settled things nicely but Jochen Hecht’s power play goal and an empty netter for Jiri Tlusty accounted for the 7-4 final.
“I had a lot of fun out there,” said prized rookie defenceman Luke Schenn
. “That was my first time playing in front of the Air Canada Centre fans. It was good to play with the NHL guys.” Schenn accounted himself well. He finished plus 2 and looked comfortable in a tandem with another newcomer, Jeff Finger
Finger, who predicted no problem with nerves, didn’t live up to his word.
“Maybe I lied a little bit. It was great to get my feet wet,” he said. “I have never been in this building for a game. It was unbelievable. During the national anthem you could just feel it. It was awesome.”
“It was a win,” assessed Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “I saw some things I really liked and some things we have to work on. It’s a start.”
Shot-blocking has always been a staple of Wilson’s teams. The Maple Leafs blocked 23 shots. The Sabres blocked 11.
“The number of shots we blocked was tremendously high,” Wilson said. “It’s a sign that they are listening.”