TORONTO – The dress rehearsal is over. And the final act wasn’t pretty.
The Toronto Maple Leafs blew a late two-goal lead in their final exhibition tuneup and watched as the Columbus Blue Jackets walked away with a 5-4 shootout victory.
Last year’s version of the Maple Leafs had all kinds of trouble holding leads and this year’s team wasn’t any better during the pre-season. Ahead 4-2 with less than three minutes to play, Toronto looked totally in control on Sunday before Jakub Voracek and Jason Chimera scored 15 seconds apart.
The game changed in an instant.
“I didn’t sense any timidness or anything like that,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “We were taking the game to them and it’s just a little bump in the road and the wheels fall off.”
Toronto still nearly won in regulation but Jason Blake couldn’t beat Dan LaCosta on a clear breakaway in the final minute. Once the game reached a shootout, Blue Jackets rookie Nikita Filatov was the only player to score.
That brought an end to a hectic two-week stretch that saw the Leafs play nine exhibition games. Wilson didn’t have much time to teach his players during training camp as he was only able to schedule six practices.
“I’m exhausted from all these games,” he said. “So I know our team’s tired.”
Everyone will take Monday off. The next time the Maple Leafs are on the ice for a game will be Thursday night in Detroit, where they’ll watch the Red Wings raise a Stanley Cup banner before opening the regular season.
The final exhibition game offered a glimpse of what fans can expect to see once the games start counting in the standings. The Leafs looked sloppy and disorganized at times, but received some good goaltending from Vesa Toskala.
Clearly, this team will be a work in progress.
“I think we had more games than practices (in the pre-season) so we didn’t really have quality time to practice too much,” said Toskala. “I think we’re just learning all the time. We’re still halfway in the process.”
It hasn’t all been doom and gloom for the Maple Leafs. First-round draft pick Luke Schenn was a standout at training camp and seems destined to start the season in the NHL.
Interim GM Cliff Fletcher hinted that an entry-level contract for the 18-year-old defenceman was already in place and said it would be “logical” for reporters to assume that Schenn is staying with the team for now. The only other option the club has is to send him back to Kelowna for another year in the Western Hockey League.
Schenn hopes he’s done enough to warrant a longer look.
“You’ve always got to think positive,” he said. “The final decision’s not going to be up to me. I feel like I’ve progressed and I’ve gotten more comfortable with everything here.
“Obviously it’s a big adjustment coming to Toronto and your first NHL camp.”
His coach certainly sounded pleased with what he had seen.
“If you watched him tonight, you’d say, ‘Ooh.’ He was killing penalties, knocking pucks down, pushing people – that was impressive,” said Wilson. “We’ll figure everything out. It will be not what’s best for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it will be what’s best for Luke Schenn.
“At this point, that’s the way you have to think.”
The Leafs are expected to make their final roster decisions over the next couple days. An official team list must be submitted to the league by 3 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
Toronto finished the pre-season with a record of 2-5-2.
Alexandre Picard, Filatov, Chimera and Voracek had goals for Columbus in regulation on Sunday while Mikhail Grabovsky, Mike Van Ryn, Anton Stralman and Alexei Ponikarovsky replied for the Maple Leafs.
Toronto’s offence is an area of concern heading into the season.
“We’re going to have trouble scoring goals, particularly against the good teams,” said Fletcher. “Goals come from skill and talent.”
The best example of skill and talent during the pre-season came from Grabovsky, who was acquired in a trade with Montreal over the summer. The 24-year-old has just 27 games of NHL experience so far but will be counted on heavily this year.
Grabovsky’s goal at 11:50 of the second period tied the score 2-2. He finished off a tic-tac-toe passing play by firing a low shot under Blue Jackets starter Fredrik Norrena and pumped his fists in celebration.
He later assisted on goals by Stralman and Ponikarovsky to end the pre-season with a team-leading five goals and eight points in eight games. The flashy centre has made a big impression.
“He competes hard,” said Fletcher. “With us, he’s going to have a lot of opportunity to play in offensive situations.”
Many have suggested that it would be best for the Leafs to have a poor season in order to secure another top draft pick next June.
While Fletcher acknowledged that he loves having top selections, he added one important caveat to discredit the theory: “You have to get your brains beaten out to get one of them.”
Notes: Announced attendance at Air Canada Centre was 18,455 but there were plenty of empty seats … After the game, Toronto assigned Richard Petiot, Jaime Sifers, Robbie Earl, Kyle Rogers and Justin Pogge to the AHL Marlies … Columbus opens the regular season in Dallas on Friday night … Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash was among the players that didn’t dress … Schenn was picked fifth overall in the June draft – one spot ahead of Filatov.