DETROIT – A Toronto Maple Leafs season that isn’t expected to include many highlights has already produced a memorable moment.
One of the youngest teams in the NHL watched the Detroit Red Wings bring the Stanley Cup onto the ice and raise another championship banner at Joe Louis Arena before going out and beating the defending champs 3-2 on Thursday night.
Nikolai Kulemin’s first NHL goal came on a third-period breakaway and stood up as the winner for a revamped Maple Leafs team that dressed eight new players. Four of them, including the 22-year-old Kulemin, were playing their first NHL game.
The enthusiasm was evident in the way the team aggressively forechecked and in the exuberant celebrations after goals. Dominic Moore – one of the few veterans on the team – leapt more than a foot off the ice after scoring in the second period.
“I was pretty excited, it was an important goal,” he said afterwards. “We’re an excited team. We’re a young team and you’ll probably see a lot of those types of celebrations this year.”
It may only be one of 82 games, but the Leafs demonstrated that they are capable of being very competitive on any given night.
Perhaps the most encouraging development of all came in the third period when Toronto managed to hold off a spirited comeback attempt from the Wings. Goaltender Vesa Toskala had to make a good save on a streaking Mikael Samuelsson with about three minutes to go before withstanding a late flurry while the Wings were on a power play.
The players poured off the visiting bench with wide grins when the buzzer finally sounded to end the game.
“This is one of the more satisfying wins I’ve ever had,” said new Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “I’ve had some really great teams come into Detroit and you’re hanging on for dear life and if you can win a game in a shootout, you consider yourself lucky.
“For us tonight, it was kind of a special night. I’m really proud of everybody on the team. They were outstanding.”
Pavel Kubina, Moore and Kulemin had the goals for Toronto while Tomas Holmstrom had both in reply for Detroit.
The Red Wings started the evening by raising a banner to the rafters to commemorate their Stanley Cup victory in June. Members of last year’s team – including retired players Dominik Hasek and Dallas Drake – were on the ice surface as the 11th championship banner went up.
It wasn’t long before they were reminded just how tough it will be to win another one.
“First off, give Toronto credit,” said Wings coach Mike Babcock. “They were quicker than us. They worked hard. They wanted it.”
And he doesn’t think that had anything to do with the distraction of the pre-game ceremony.
“I don’t accept that,” said Babcock. “Bottom line is we found out tonight what level the NHL is played at.”
The expectations in Toronto are as low as they’ve been in more than a decade, with interim GM Cliff Fletcher and Wilson both vowing to be patient with a young team that is bound to experience some growing pains.
There was no pain for the young guys on this night. In addition to the winning goal by Kulemin, 18-year-old defenceman Luke Schenn looked solid in a pairing with Tomas Kaberle and earned more than 17 minutes of ice time.
John Mitchell also appeared in his first NHL game and was one of several Leafs that showed flashes of speed that were sorely lacking last season. He believes that a confidence is growing among the youngsters and castoffs currently wearing blue and white jerseys.
“There’s a lot of talk about us and how our team might not be very good this year,” said Mitchell. “We came out and showed we’re going to be hard-working team. They’re a really good team and we beat them.”
Detroit actually got off to a quick start, displaying the patented puck-control game that helped it win the Stanley Cup last season.
Toskala was the main reason the defending champs didn’t get on the board early – although he had some help from a goal post. Daniel Cleary wired a shot that got through Toskala about nine minutes in but the rolling puck hit the post and stayed out.
The longer the Leafs stayed in the game, the more comfortable they looked. Kubina opened the scoring on a power play with 25.3 seconds left in the first and Moore made it 2-0 with just under five minutes to play in the second.
After falling behind, the Red Wings could just never catch up.
“They have a better team than last year,” said Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood. “Some people think just because you switched older players out in Toronto your team is going to be worse. It’s not the case, they have some good young players on their team.
“They really forced the issue on us and forechecked well. They held us in our end quite a bit. And that’s off determination and how fired up they were to play us. We’re going to have a lot of games like that this year where teams get excited and fired up to play us. So we have to be ready. That’s the way it’s going to be.”
There won’t be much time for the Leafs to savour the victory, with Montreal set to visit the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
Wilson joked that there would probably be people in Toronto “writing down a parade route” after the big victory and cautioned against getting too excited. However, even the veteran coach had to admit that his team exceeded expectations on opening night.
“I’m really proud of the group, they paid attention,” said Wilson. “We’ve really only had eight practices and to have the game figured out somewhat tells you a lot about our players. They bought in, and we’ve had a lot of fun.
“They’re having a great time in there right now and they should, they beat the Stanley Cup champions. It’s a tremendous accomplishment and it can only do good things for our confidence.”
Notes: Toskala was listed on a scorer’s sheet as the Leafs captain but Wilson said it was a mistake … The Toronto goalie finished with 35 saves … Detroit has won seven straight Central Division titles … Toronto is one of two Eastern Conference teams that hasn’t had a playoff berth since the lockout in 2005. The other is Florida … Ian White and Anton Stralman were healthy scratches for the Maple Leafs … Detroit and Toronto each have 274 all-time wins against each other. They’ve played to 93 ties.