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Leafs and Senators ready for home-and-home set to begin season @NHLdotcom

TORONTO - It won't take long to determine if the Toronto Maple Leafs are an improved team.

They play eight of their first 10 games in Air Canada Centre, beginning with a visit by the powerful Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night, and a good start is imperative if they want to make the playoffs after missing out two years in a row.

They lost five of their first seven home games last year and, considering that they were one point shy of qualifying for the post-season at the end of their schedule, the poor home-ice start had a big bearing on their ultimate fate.

Captain Mats Sundin doesn't want it to happen again.

"We want to make it known around the league that we're a tough team to play on home ice," Sundin said on the eve of the season opener. "Last year we were slow out of the gate playing on home ice.

"If we want to be a playoff team this year we need to have a good home record. So it's going to be very important to have a good start this year."

Sundin will centre Jason Blake and Nik Antropov on the first line.

Blake, coming off a 40-goal season with the New York Islanders, is the sparkplug of a winger Toronto has lacked on the top unit. He's rarin' to go.

"It's nice being the new guy on the block, the new guy on the line," he said, sweat dripping off his brow under the glare of camera lighting after practice. "You always want to have a good first game just to get it under your belt and maybe feel a little more at ease.

"We've had a good training camp. I know the wins and losses aren't what we wanted but we learned a lot and we've got some systems in place. The guys are ready to go."

Sundin and Blake are still searching for the chemistry necessary to make the two click completely, but he's hopeful.

"His speed and his goal-scoring ability is going to help our whole team," said Sundin.

The first-line assignment is a huge opportunity for Antropov. The oft-injured Kazakh scored a career-best 18 goals while healthy enough for only 54 games last season.

"They're still growing into what they can do," said head coach Paul Maurice.

Darcy Tucker, Chad Kilger and John Pohl have been skating together.

Matt Stajan, Alex Steen and Alexei Ponikarovsky are another possible combination, and Boyd Devereaux, Kris Newbury and Bates Battaglia can comprise a fourth line.

"We've got a good solid group of guys," said Tucker.

He doesn't expect anything to come easy, and organizational depth to offset the loss of injured players will be a key, he said.

"It's just a simple fact that every team is going to go through it and we have to find ways to make ourselves better to be a good playoff team when that time of year comes around," said Tucker.

Maurice has paired his two biggest defencemen, six-foot-seven Hall Gill and six-foot-four Andy Wozniewski. He has Bryan McCabe with Ian White and Pavel Kubina with Tomas Kaberle. Staffan Kronwall and Anton Stralman are the extra pair, with one likely sitting out Wednesday.

Maurice wouldn't say who he'd start in goal but Vesa Toskala is expected to get the nod over incumbent Andrew Raycroft. The Leafs did not trade draft picks to get Toskala and then hand him an US$8-million, two-year contract to sit on the end of the bench.

Forward Kyle Wellwood and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo are on the injured list.

Forward Mark Bell also is unavailable due to his 15-game league suspension, which kicked in Wednesday after the league received assurances from doctors that he's satisfactorily completing a substance abuse and behavioural health program.

Toronto and Ottawa meet again Thursday in Canada's capital.

"It's a good gauge for us and we've got to be ready to go," Gill said of the first two games. "Whether we win or lose, we have to keep getting better with every game but, hopefully, we can play well and get a couple of wins here."

Maurice said he expects the back-to-back with Ottawa to feature "very fast and, I expect, quite physical games."

The futures with the team of Maurice and GM John Ferguson hinge on a playoff berth. That kind of pressure comes with the territory, said Maurice.

"This is professional sports," he said. "You're not running at 45 per cent pressure at any point in time, or at 80 per cent.

"You're at 100 per cent and most people who are in this long enough are very good at the 100-per-cent line."

The season opener is a fresh start for men who are blessed with the athletic abilities to earn a living and receive the adulation of fans while shooting a puck around.

"It's a lot of fun," said Tucker. "I'm very fortunate and lucky to be able to play a game that is loved by many in Canada.

"It's a nice night when you walk into the ACC and it's the home opener."

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