TORONTO – Of all the places you’d expect the Toronto Maple Leafs to look for inspiration, last year is not one of them.
But on the eve of the 2010-11 regular season, coach Ron Wilson was calling for a similar effort to what he saw 12 months earlier in the opener against the Montreal Canadiens. Toronto poured 46 shots on goal in a game it ended up losing 4-3 in overtime—the beginning of a gruesome 0-7-1 stretch that put the Leafs well on the way to a 29th overall finish.
Heading into Thursday’s opener against the Habs (CBC, 7 p.m. ET), Wilson was hoping a similar effort would produce a much different result.
“If you look at our game with Montreal last year, we played really well and did everything except win the hockey game,” said Wilson. “We had a lot of shots on goal, limited them in their looks and opportunities. … We have to have the same approach.”
The revamped Leafs are only expected to have six players on the ice who played in last year’s game—a seventh, Nikolai Kulemin, was a healthy scratch. The organization is hoping a massive change in personnel will lead to better results on the ice.
The team can take one step forward simply by winning on Thursday—amazingly, the last time Toronto won its home opener was Oct. 7, 2000 against Montreal.
They’ll be facing a Habs team that is missing some key personnel. Defenceman Andrei Markov is still recovering from knee surgery, forward Mike Cammalleri will be serving a one-game suspension and No. 1 goalie Carey Price is a game-day decision because of the flu.
However, it’s not something the Leafs are paying much attention to.
“To me it’s irrelevant who plays goal for the other team,” said Wilson. “Any time you (say) ‘Oh boy, we’re lucky they’re missing Cammalleri, possibly Price or any of these guys,’ you set yourself up for failure.”
One player who will be looking for a better performance in the home opener is Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek. In his first game against his former team last year, Komisarek racked up 15 minutes in penalties and was sitting in the box when Montreal tied it on a power play late in the third period.
“I’ll be a little bit more controlled this year for sure,” said Komisarek. “Last year’s in the past, there’s a lot of moments like that. It’s just being in control at the end of the day.”
One message Wilson intended to deliver to his players was the importance of keeping their emotions in check.
A number will play their first meaningful games as members of the Maple Leafs on Thursday night, including off-season acquisitions Kris Versteeg, Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong. They’ve each had a chance to get settled in the city and can’t help but notice how much interest there is in the team here.
“It’s nuts,” said Versteeg. “I haven’t even been in this city for three weeks yet and people already recognize (me) and know who I am. It’s pretty crazy. It shows how much they want to win because they always come up to you and talk to you about it.
“It’s almost like every person in Canada’s a coach—everyone knows the game so well.”
For those that have been around awhile, the season offers the chance to make some better memories. New captain Dion Phaneuf spoke of looking forward to a “fresh start” while J-S Giguere, who will be in goal against the Canadiens, talked about all of the enthusiasm he senses in a young dressing room.
“There should be no reason why we don’t work hard,” said Giguere. “When you’re a young team you should have all kinds of energy.”
Wilson believes he’s finally been given a lineup where players fit properly into different roles. In addition to the top scoring unit of Versteeg, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak, he’s enthusiastic about a shutdown line of Armstrong, Tim Brent and Fredrik Sjostrom.
There’s also a fourth unit that will start with journeyman centre Mike Zigomanis between Colton Orr and Mike Brown.
“Everybody has to be comfortable in their role,” said Wilson. “You can’t have guys on the third and fourth line who think they’re supposed to be on the first line and they reluctantly do their job. If you don’t have a passion to do it, you’re going to let yourself down by not being mentally ready to step on the ice and do it.”
The Leafs believe they’re ready.
As dismal as last season was in Toronto, the team can draw some positives from its play late in the year. They finished on an 11-7-1 run and hope to carry it over to this season.
“We have to do it now when it matters,” said Wilson. “I believe our team feels good about itself right now—moreso than I’ve ever felt here. Tomorrow we’ve just got to go out and play our game (against Montreal).
“If we do that, we have a pretty good chance of winning.”