To say that the atmosphere surrounding the Air Canada Center tonight was electric would be an understatement almost to the point of insult.
With the stage set for Toronto to open their season at home against the the Montreal Canadiens, even the most casual of hockey fans had tonight's game marked on their calendars. A tail-gate party was held outside of the Air Canada Centre for those not fortunate enough to have tickets.
The packed event began at 4:30, with Toronto Maple Leafs alumni showing up to tell stories and answer questions in front of the very supportive crowd.
The highlight of the night, however, came when Brian Burke made his way onto the stage to address a very unsuspecting crowd. Burke kept it cool and simple with a classic "We have the best fans in the world."
The crowd went wild.
The Leafs came out of the gate looking both disoriented and sluggish. From the drop of the puck, it was evident that something was off; the team that everyone had come to see was replaced by a chaotic mess of blue and white sweaters making its away haphazardly around the ice.
The Leafs defence had immense trouble early on with the concept of clearing the puck. The first period was marred by turnovers that kept the pressure almost exclusively on the Leafs. Potential rushes were lucky to pass the blue line and those that did were quickly dismantled in the neutral zone.
Nobody was able to keep the puck on their sticks, and the Leafs found themselves time after time being pushed out of a clogged neutral zone. Both offensively and defensively, John-Michael Liles played very well; jumping into the rush and at one point intercepting a very dangerous cross-ice pass in his own zone.
Toronto's offensive opportunities were incredibly rare and were carried out with absolutely zero communication. The Leafs would spend most of the period fighting a tight Montreal Canadiens offense in their own end, taking the first two penalties of the game.
Despite a great hit by Mike Brown to get the crowd going and brilliant play by James Reimer, the Leafs would be out-shot 14-4 with Don Cherry going on to declare it as "the worst period of hockey ever." Despite all of the obvious frustration, the crowd outside remained positive.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are famous for not playing a full 60 minutes of hockey, and rightfully so. What's so fun about watching the Leafs play is not knowing when they're actually going to start playing.
Matthew Lombardi got the excitement going with a short-handed goal 33 seconds into the period. The team came out with a ferocious physical intensity, most notably Luke Schenn and Dion Phaneuf, who had been completely invisible in the first.
The defensive core which had looked so disoriented just 10 minutes earlier, suddenly clicked; everybody looked more comfortable and each pairing succeeded in forcing turnovers; shutting down most of Montreal's opportunities before the team even had a chance to set up.
The Leafs' new-found energy was not limited to just the defensive zone with every single line keeping pressure on the Montreal defence. The Leafs' fourth line, which scored the first goal, was especially fun to watch; I am continuously impressed by Mike Brown's abilities all over the ice.
Phil Kessel was a part of several fantastic scoring opportunities on the night but unfortunately was robbed each time by a very strong Carey Price. Kessel is incredibly dangerous off the rush and I believe he's ready for a very strong season.
The only aspect of Toronto's game that failed to improve in the second was their PP; the team struggled to generate offense on a Power Play early on and failed to capitalize on a lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity.
One should note that their second PP looked much more fluid than the first, although I am not totally convinced that Dion Phaneuf looks good on the man advantage. Regardless, the Leafs would carry their one goal advantage into the final period.
The third period would finally see Jake Gardiner get some confidence. The young defenceman remained relatively quiet through the first two periods of play, spending most of his time passing the puck to his line mate Mike Komisarek, who played a great game.
Gardiner used the third period to stretch his legs and join the rush. I think that it'll take some time to get the kinks worked out, but I can see him getting some serious ice time later in the year. That being said, both Gunnarsen and Komisarek made very strong cases as to why they should remain out of the press box.
The second and final goal of the game came when Captain Dion Phaneuf joined the rush and fired a slap shot over the shoulder of a stunned Carey Price. I'm happy to see Dion joining the rush and doing a lot more skating out there; it's a very nice change from the sluggish defender we watched last season.
Offensively, the team remained strong with Phil Kessel and Jeoffrey Lupul putting together some great scoring opportunities.
The Leafs would remain in control until late in the period when a Schenn penalty combined with an empty net to give the Canadiens a 6-on-4 advantage. Fortunately, Reimer was able to hang on and earn the shut out. Toronto ended the night being out-shot 32-18 and were it not for Reimer's play, the game surely would have turned out differently.
It will be interesting to see how things change over the next few weeks with two big-name players re-entering the lineup. Steckle's abilities on the face-off will keep him around, likely leaving Philippe Dupuis, who didn't play all that badly, as the odd man out.
It should also be noted that Matt Frattin looked incredibly confident tonight, and if he is able to stay consistent, Kadri may end up spending some more time with the Marlies.
Overall, the Leafs played a good game. Lots of improvements still need to be made, to the power play especially. That being said, I go forward into the season as all Leaf fans do: hopelessly optimistic.