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New Leafs prepare to face Devils in Toronto debuts

by Jeremy Sandler
TORONTO -- Crisp and newly pressed Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys bearing the names and numbers of defenseman Dion Phaneuf and goaltender J.S. Giguere were front and center at the Air Canada Centre's team store Tuesday morning.

Not so among the 10,000 or so schoolchildren attending Toronto's morning skate, where the sweaters of departed Maple Leaf stars like Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour and Curtis Joseph dominated the back of kids dressed in blue and white. But there was no denying that kids like 11-year-old Jack Bender of Stouffville, Ont. were excited by the presence of the newest Maple Leafs.

"Yeah," said Jack, a Grade 5 student in Mr. Vandervelde's class from Glad Park Public School. "Because the Leafs are going to be better."

The throng of children may have been doing the screaming, but it was the Maple Leafs who were acting like they had just gotten some presents to open on Christmas Day. And for a team looking to improve a power-play that has fallen into the bottom half dozen teams in the League at 16.4 percent heading into Tuesday's game against the New Jersey Devils, there were few better gifts than Phaneuf's booming shot from the point.

"Basically I think we've been missing a point shot that you have to establish early on in the power play to kind of back everybody off and then you can create some other plays down low," forward Alexei Ponikarovsky said following Tuesday's morning skate. "So with his shot, basically you have to be in front just screening the goalie, that's my job."

Toronto power-play stalwart Tomas Kaberle said Phaneuf's game reminded him of his former partner, Bryan McCabe, with whom the Maple Leafs' point leader enjoyed great success.

"We went through the power play there for a few minutes and you get the feeling he wants to do the kinds of things like Caber back then with me a few years a go. If you have (Phil) Kessel on the left side and Dion on the right, we're going to get more options there."
-- Maple Leafs Tomas Kaberle on practicing with Dion Phaneuf

"We went through the power play there for a few minutes and you get the feeling he wants to do the kinds of things like Caber back then with me a few years a go," Kaberle said. "If you have (Phil) Kessel on the left side and Dion on the right, we're going to get more options there."

That echoed the thoughts of coach Ron Wilson on employing his new blue-line weapon.

"Having a guy who can pound the puck like that and the other team being maybe a little reluctant to get in the way of that type of a shot, there's more shooting lanes," Wilson said. "Therefore there's more rebounds, therefore it scrambles the other team a little bit more trying to find pucks."

Phaneuf said he had spent some time talking with both Kaberle and his new five-on-five partner, Francois Beauchemin, though most of his learning about their tendencies would be picked up on the ice.

"Yesterday working on it with Kabby, he can pass the puck unbelievably and Phil on the half wall, that worked (Monday)," Phaneuf said. "When I get the opportunity I'll definitely shoot the puck and do whatever I can to help this team win whether it's on special teams or five-on-five."

What the hard-hitting 24-year-old did not want to do is come out trying to make an impression.

"I'm going to play my game and there's no secret to anyone here or anyone around that I like to play physical, I have to play physical to be effective, that's a big part of my game," he said, conceding he expected some butterflies to arrive in the hours before the puck dropped against the Devils. "I'm not going to go out of my way to make the big hit, but if it's there, I'll take it."

As for Giguere, he explained why he waived his no-trade clause with Anaheim to come to a last-place team that is unlikely to make the playoffs. Besides re-uniting with GM Brian Burke and goaltending coach Francois Allaire, both with the Ducks team that Giguere led to a Stanley Cup win in 2006, the 32-year-old said he wanted to play in a place where hockey took centre stage.

"I think if you can compare Anaheim and Toronto, I've never seen that many reporters during a regular-season game," he said as he surveyed the sea of cameras and microphones pointed his way. "That's going to keep me on a edge a little bit, that's kind of what I was looking for a little bit.

"I grew up in Montreal, so I know what the buzz is all about, I know what the Leafs represent to this city and it's going to be a whole lot of fun," he said. "I had a little bit going to the Stanley Cup Final, I know what is to have kind of a media frenzy, but it was always a short period of time."

Giguere said he also saw an advantage to living out of a hotel for a while in a new city.

"Being at the hotel is just like being on the road, it's something that I'm pretty much used to," he said. "And not having kids screaming around, I might even feel better."

Jeremy Sandler writes for the National Post newspaper in Toronto.
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