Sens first big test for Leafs

Maple Leafs' Jason Allison (left) clowns with teammates Darcy Tucker and Tie Domi during practice...

Maple Leafs' Jason Allison (left) clowns with teammates Darcy Tucker and Tie Domi during practice at the Gravenhust Centennial Centre, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2005. (Toronto Sun/Mark O'Neill)

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:30 PM ET

GRAVENHURST -- Seventeen months and one day.

That's the span of time that has passed since the Maple Leafs played in an NHL game that meant something. And if you think that putting them on the ice tonight against the Ottawa Senators would be akin to throwing a steak at a pack of starving dogs, you would not be far off.

"It's kind of surreal that it's finally upon us," defenceman Bryan McCabe said yesterday before the club ended its cottage-country mini-camp and headed back down Hwy. 400 to Toronto. "I think everyone is just ecstatic to get back on the ice and enjoy the competition again."

There's no doubt the competition aspect of returning to the ice after the NHL lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season will be staring the Leafs -- who have not played since May 4, 2004, when they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs -- in the face. Not that there will be many easy nights (except, perhaps, when the Washington Capitals or New York Rangers are the opposition), but the first week will be daunting.

Following their arch-rivals at the Air Canada Centre are matches against the Montreal Canadiens at home on Saturday), the Senators, again, in Ottawa on Monday, and the Philadelphia Flyers at the ACC the next night.

"We couldn't ask for a better test to start," captain Mats Sundin said. "Ottawa is expected to be one of the best teams in the league, so it will be a good measuring stick."

And don't think for a minute these Senators will resemble the club the Leafs have vanquished in the playoffs four of the past five years. Favourites of Leafs fans including captain Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara still wear the red, black and white, but with an offensive attack favoured by new coach Bryan Murray, gone are the days the Senators simply waited to pounce on an opponent's mistakes.

Goalie Dominik Hasek is ready to resume his NHL career, but the Leafs defenders will have to worry more about the explosive trio of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and rookie Brandon Bochenski. The three combined for 41 points during the pre-season.

And remember how team toughness was an issue? Well, say hello to Brian McGrattan. The former Mississauga IceDog had a whopping 551 penalty minutes with Binghamton of the AHL last season. And thorn-in-the-side Chris Neil hasn't gone anywhere.

For the Leafs, Eric Lindros finally will consummate his love affair with the club while incoming veterans Jason Allison, Jeff O'Neill, Alexander Khavanov and Mariusz Czerkawski also will make their debut.

O'Neill, who engineered a trade to the Leafs from the Carolina Hurricanes, couldn't wait to get going again, especially against Ottawa.

"The rivalry has a little better ring to it than Carolina-Florida," O'Neill said. "It's a true traditional rivalry and I'm happy to step into it."


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