Young wingers pass first test

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

OSHAWA -- An optimist would look at yesterday's Blue-White game and suggest the 5-1 score reflects a new and better Maple Leafs team.

A pessimist could look at it and wonder if it isn't just so much of the same old thing dressed up to look like Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala.

The truth probably lies somewhere between.

There were a lot of good things. Blake showed his speed, scored and was everything his exalted paycheque would indicate he should be.

Toskala? Let's just say he looked a lot like Andrew Raycroft last year. By the time he left, he'd allowed three goals. But, he also stopped Blake from in close and made a nifty sprawling save when Robbie Earl tried to deke around him.

It is, as he said afterwards, a work in process. Yesterday wasn't anything he hasn't seen before this early in training camp, although the sellout crowd to watch what was a glorified scrimmage was an eye-opener.

"I've never had this many people (at a team scrimmage)," Toskala said. "It's good to see so many Leafs fans. It just shows how interested people are."

This is the kind of exhibition where coaches and management are looking at the young and untested. In that sense, it was a good start.

The line of Matt Stajan, Alex Steen and Simon Gamache may have been the biggest eye-opener. The first two are guaranted places but Gamache is a bit of a wild card, a seven-year pro who played last year in Switzerland. In other words, it's kind of like picking a guy off the street corner. But he did score 66 points there in 46 games and if he doesn't make the team, well, yesterday still was a shining moment.

ONE PUNCH

He was one punch away from the Gordie Howe hat trick -- a goal, an assist and a run-in with Darcy Tucker. Actually, he plays a lot like Tucker, bigger than he is.

The goal came when he flipped a rebound high over Toskala.

"You just go for the net ... and the puck went into my skates. I got it on the backhand. It was more the result of a line working good together," said Gamache, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds. Optimistically.

"I don't think I'm that small. I mean, I am," he said. "But I'm not afraid to go into the corner or to go to the net."

Later, Gamache broke in over the blue line and Tucker took him down hard and he slid into the boards.

"I'm going to finish a check and Darcy was just doing his job, too," said Gamache, who gave Tucker a long, hard look as they both skated off. "That's fine with me. I play with a little grit. I try to be aggressive."

PLAYING NICELY

If there is a spot for Gamache on this team, it would so far be a mystery to everyone except coach Paul Maurice. And, so far, Maurice is acknowledging only that Gamache is playing quite nicely, thank you?

"We were forechecking. We were relentless. Mission accomplished," Gamache said, "but tomorrow is another day."

Still, for one day, a kid can dream. A kid such as Jiri Tlusty, a first-round pick in 2006 out of the Czech Republic who last year played junior in Sault Ste. Marie. He rang a shot off the crossbar minutes into the game.

"I thought I scored, but ...," he let the sweet thought linger. Maybe next time. "I hope I get to play a few more games."

Tlusty probably is targeted for the Marlies, but he didn't look out of place yesterday, either. He stole the puck at the blue line later in the first period and admits he is feeling a lot more comfortable than last year when he came to training camp.

"My English is a little better and I can talk to the guys more," he said.

"Last year, I'd just sit in the dressing room and look around. It was hard for me. This year I know a bit more what is expected."

What is expected is that the Leafs' younger generation prove it belongs. As experiments go, let's just say nothing blew up yesterday.

"I thought they played well but let's keep it in perspective," general manager John Ferguson said. "This is just the Blue-White game. That was a good start but we need them to do this against the opposition and we need them to do it all season."


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