Leafs will be put to the test

Andrew Raycroft debuts for the Maple Leafs in the regular season tonight against the Ottawa...

Andrew Raycroft debuts for the Maple Leafs in the regular season tonight against the Ottawa Senators in Toronto. (Toronto Sun/Alex Urosevic)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:04 AM ET

No need to remind Andrew Raycroft about the value of breaking fast from the blocks.

That the Boston Bruins didn't fare well last October -- in the Northeast Division or with Raycroft in goal -- is a big reason why they missed the playoffs and why he's now starting for the Maple Leafs in their season opener against the Ottawa Senators tonight.

"We lost a lot of division games to teams such as Ottawa and Montreal, who did really well," Raycroft said yesterday as the Leafs had their final tuneup at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "You're always going to go through stretches of the season where you don't win, so you always want to put points in the bank early."

However, don't put money on this team getting off to a 10-0 start like the 1993-94 Leafs, especially with injuries, a Game 1 suspension and question marks galore at all three positions.

And given the way Ottawa took the mickey out of the Leafs last season -- a 7-0 record until Toronto won a meaningless game in April -- there is potential for a Sens sweep of the home-and-home this week and no Thanksgiving cheer if the Montreal Canadiens carry on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre.

Which makes this week, as early as it is in an 82-game season, a crucial test for new coach Paul Maurice and the 10 players in the Ottawa series who weren't Leafs regulars a year ago.

"You look around this division and it's high-powered, good-skating teams," captain Mats Sundin said. "If we want to (keep up), we have to do the same. It has been an exciting atmosphere at this camp and I'm happy with the additions we've made."

A 50-goal winger did not materialize on Sundin's flank during camp (he'll open between Alexei Ponikarovsky and Kyle Wellwood), but free agents and deserving farmhands populate the other three lines. Sundin is likely to get more ice time when Maurice cuts back to three lines at crunch time and don't forget that Sundin plays with a fine group of finishers on Toronto's conference-leading power play.

There are proven NHLers at the No. 3 and 4 defence spots to take the heat off of Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, with some promising blue liners behind them. And should Raycroft get hurt, he's backed up by two goaltenders who were as good or better than him during pre-season games.

"I think we're right where we should be," Maurice said, though he has tended to sugarcoat the club's deficiencies in four consecutive exhibition losses that concluded camp. "But as a coach, you never think your team is ever fast enough, mean enough or disciplined enough. We've got to improve in every area."

The early weeks of the schedule should reveal whether Raycroft has recouped his Calder Trophy form, if Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill are an upgrade on defence from the likes of Aki Berg and Alex Khavanov, if Maurice's faith in his former Marlies farmhands is rewarded and if winger Alex Suglobov is more dangerous to his own team than the opposition with his derring-do dekes.

Things can change in a hurry as the Leafs' history with injuries has shown. Carlo Colaiacovo and Staffan Kronwall, two youngsters expected to challenge on defence, will start the year on the injury list, along with Brendan Bell, knocked out of the race by a mid-camp foot injury.

Nik Antropov was looking forward to proving that critics of his fragility are wrong, but was hurt in the final exhibition game. That brought Jeff O'Neill back from limbo, while a one-game suspension to Kubina gave Wade Belak an opening in the starting lineup, albeit on defence after he prepared for months as a winger. That bumped Jay Harrison, who could almost taste his first opening night in the NHL after four years in the minors.

"When I started with the Marlies last year, Jay was a healthy scratch on opening night because we had so many defencemen," Maurice recalled. "I thought, 'This will be difficult to manage (keeping people happy.)' I don't think we had a healthy lineup the rest of the year. Injuries will hit every team."

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OPENING NIGHT LEAFS ROSTER

Goal

Raycroft-Aubin

Defence

McCabe-Kaberle

Gill-Wozniewski

White-Belak

Forwards

Wellwood-Sundin- Ponikarovsky

Kilger-Peca-Steen

Tucker-Stajan-Suglobov

Battaglia-Pohl-O'Neill

Scratches

G Mikael Tellqvist, D Jay Harrison, D Pavel Kubina (suspended)

Injured reserve

D Carlo Colaiacovo, D Staffan Kronwall, D Brendan Bell, F Nik Antropov, F Ben Ondrus


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