As the final whistle blew Saturday night in Toronto, ending the Leafs ninth preseason game, CBC announcer Jim Hughson said it best, "Enough with the dress rehearsals."
It's time for real hockey.
After what was quite the entertaining preseason in Toronto, finishing with a 5-3-1 record, the team and it's fans seem to have an unusual sense of optimism about them. There is a certain swagger that, though undeserved, is giving Leaf Nation some hope that has seldom been a part of life as a fan in Hog Town.
This team could actually go somewhere, do something. Win.
Well, maybe, but at least this season isn't starting with the line so often heard in these parts, "at least there's next year."
It has always been cruel and unusual punishment being a fan of the Leafs; the owners of the longest Cup-winless streak in the NHL, while at the same time forced to live in Toronto-the city that Lord Stanley actually calls home atop a pedestal in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
For a trophy that feels so untouchable to so many NHL players across North America, fans of the beloved Leafs can walk into the Hall and put their greasy fingers all over it, take pictures with it, and do their best to make out the names of their favourite players engraved on it over time.
They just can't ever win it. It's sad really, sort of like being allowed to eat as much candy as you could possibly imagine, but never being satisfied. Oh wait, they call that Halloween.
Anyways, it's been tough times for Leaf fans, that's no secret, but the outlook on this particular club has the people around the league actually talking about them without using the words "lottery" or "suck."
It's not that there is a nation-wide agreement that this team could actually make some noise in the playoffs this year, it's just that before they dismiss them from having a chance at making the postseason, they actually pause and think about it for a minute.
So as opening night is just days away, here's a look back at what's stood out in the exhibition games; the good, the bad, and that kid who's name you're already sick of hearing.
There's been plenty to be positive about the Maple Buds through the nine games of pond-hockey-like shinny, and it has to do with more than just their jersey's looking less practice-like and more professional.
The team looks to be coming together, the leaders are coming through on their own, rather than being forced into a role they can't handle, and the group is forming into the team Brian Burke often describes with one of those big words not actually found in any English dictionary.
Yes, there is much to be happy about in Leaf Land, and it all starts with the goal scoring so dearly missed in season's (decades) past.
Phil Kessel led all preseason scoring with six goals while Nikolai Kulemin finished with five goals, both players who will need to be big contributors offensively. And before you run through the streets trying to find the best spot for watching the parade, remember the Leafs have played more games than any other team (like the Islanders, the team the league apparently forgot about and just threw in a few preseason games for them last minute).
But still, it's nice to see the scorers are doing what they're told.
Kessel was an offensive force in every game he appeared in, capping it off with a three assist performance in the final game against Detroit. If he can maintain the pace he was on in the real season, he should hit the 40 goal plateau with ease. The trio of him, Kris Versteeg, and Tyler Bozak look to have instant chemistry and have clicked on a regular basis.
Versteeg has also been a lethal weapon up front, using his deceptive speed and wicked stick handeling to draw in defenders and leave his linemates wide open. He will be playing the biggest role of his young career and could make some serious noise for the Buds.
They've also transformed the Leafs power play into something respectable, rather than just two minutes where the opponent has less of a chance to score.
It's encouraging to see a power play that can cycle the puck and score on occasion, going three-for-nine in Wednesday night's game in Ottawa and then three-for-six against Detroit on Saturday.
The addition of both Versteeg and Dion Phaneuf clearly will make it tougher for teams to shut down the Leafs PP, unlike last season when opponents could merely cover Kessel which evaporated scoring chances, then laugh at Matt Stajan while he tripped over his stick in the corner. The Leafs scored an impressive 14 goals with the man advantage in the nine games.
It's also a positive to see the coaching staff try something new, putting Phanuef in front of the net and Kessel on the point. This allowed Kaberle to shoot (you heard me) at will for once, with a monster screen blocking the net-minders vision.
The penalty kill looked much better too, which doesn't mean much considering last year's poor excuse for special teams, but with Mike Komisarek healthy and Phaneuf starting the season as a Leaf, there is no doubt the PK should continue to improve.
Then there's the most obvious improvement this year; the men between the pipes. Though the Leafs gave up more goals than they scored (scoring 27 while allowing 31), it's been the strong play of Jonas Gustavsson, J.S. Giguere, and even James Reimer that has given the club a chance to win every night.
And honestly, asking to Vesa Toskala to give the team a chance to win last year had the same effectiveness as asking Chris Bosh to stay a member of the Raptors. Clearly both men had a different agenda.
And after a summer of all Kaberle, all the time, it's nice to know that once the on-ice action started, the Kaberle talk died down and people moved on. Maybe it's because everyone was too busy talking about, well, you know who, but we'll get to him later.
There's been plenty of good this preseason, but there is always something about their game that stands out as needing improvement. First off, the first game against the Senators was horrific and by the time the 5-0 beatdown was over, coaching staff undoubtedly decided to just throw out the tapes and start fresh. Same goes with Friday night's game in Detroit, the 7-3 pummeling. Burn the tapes, on to the next.
Sort of like October through February of last season.
One aspect of the Leafs game that, at times, looked eerily similar to last season was the play of the defense. Last year, asking the defense to get the puck out of the zone was like asking the inhabitants of my living room fish tank to guard the house when I'm not home.
There were moments this preseason where the Leafs couldn't get the puck out after three, four, even five attempts at doing so. More than once the puck ended up in their net, instead of safely out of the zone as a result.
If the club is going anywhere this season, that has to change as teams with any offensive power at all will eat up those mistakes with pleasure, as they found out when Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk took them to school.
Then there's those darn goals against, an area where the Leafs have had more than a little trouble with since the lockout. Shipping Toskala out of town helps, but the fact that they still allowed 31 goals through nine exhibition games isn't comforting. Many of those goals were scored on the Leafs' AHL goaltending, but the blue-liners often looked shaky in their own end.
It was evident that much has already improved since last season's dreadful display of, well, everything throughout each of the preseason games this time around, but there is still plenty the club needs to work on before the post-season can even enter the conversation.
Last year the Leafs finished the preseason with a record of 6-3, while this year it was an almost identical 5-3-1 display. Leaf fans hope one less exhibition win means one earlier on in the regular season, because if they start 2010 with eight-straight losses, Grabovski won't be the only one with off-ice issues.
Coming into the preseason Nazem Kadri was expected to make a strong push for a roster spot on the Leafs. By the time it was over, not only had Kadri been borderline invisible in all but one of the games he played, but most people in Toronto were sick of hearing his name.
The 19-year-old will start the season in the AHL with the Marlies after just two goals and an assist in a dismal performance overall, but you can bet when the Leafs run into injury issues up front, Kadri will be one of the first that gets the call to suit up for the big club.
After proving many of his backers wrong, playing well below the level he's capable of, it's clear the kid is not ready for a full-time NHL role just yet. He'll need to work on more than one area of his game before he convinces Wilson and Co. that he can be a difference maker with the big boys.
He's close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. For future NHL stars, it gets you on the front page, not on the front lines.
As for the rest of the team, well, close is what the regular season is.
Enough with the dress rehearsals, let's get this regular season started.
It's time for real hockey.