Not bad, for starters

Carlo Colaiacovo (left), Domenic Moore and Robbie Earl celebrate Colaiacovo's goal against the...

Carlo Colaiacovo (left), Domenic Moore and Robbie Earl celebrate Colaiacovo's goal against the Sabres. (Sun Media/Alex Urosevic)

LANCE HORNBY, Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

On the night the Maple Leafs let the house in for free, they delivered the kind of game their long-suffering fans gladly would have paid top dollar to see.

As a public relations exercise, the gratis exhibition opener was a roaring success, 7-4 over the Buffalo Sabres on just two days of practice. Leafs new and old chipped in goals, big hits, shot blocks and key saves to delight almost 19,000 who replaced the season's tickets holders for one evening.

"We looked around and saw at times what it could be like here," defenceman Jeff Finger said. "Let's just say it was a good start and go from there."

New coach Ron Wilson knows the rebuilding begins anew this morning, with many tough nights ahead.

The Leafs allowed three power-play goals and three third-period goals, both sore points with Wilson.

But they also showed some untapped forecheck ability and offensive flair, starting with three goals on Sabres' first-string goalie Ryan Miller.

Dominic Moore scored two on the night, Carlo Colaiacovo had a goal and triggered another with some pressure in the Buffalo zone, while Ryan Hollweg brought back memories of a vintage Darcy Tucker with some big hits, sparking a first-period fight with Andrew Peters.

Oh yes, in their first game in 14 years without Mats Sundin on the roster, all three of last night's alternate captains had a point with goals by Boyd Devereaux and Matt Stajan and two assists by Jason Blake.

"Considering we had just the two practices and we filled their heads with so much garbage, I wish this did count in the standings," Wilson joked. "You did see our speed (which he insists can make up for a lot of Leafs deficiencies elsewhere) and the number of shots blocked (23 to Buffalo's 11) was a sign they're listening to us."

Curtis Joseph, who had played only once at the ACC since his bitter 2002 divorce from the team, drew the biggest pre-game cheers, though a short-side power-play goal by Marek Zagrapan in the first minute caused the fans to wince.

He and the Leafs recovered for two goals by Moore and Colaiacovo, Moore believing the Leafs did enough of the little things right to reverse a lot of the close losses last season that contributed to another barren April.

"There is so much parity in the league, so many one-goal games," Moore said.

Marlies starter Justin Pogge had the crowd in his pocket with 15 second-period saves, finally beaten by Philip Gogulla to unleash a six-goal third period. But Toronto didn't let its two-goal lead get away.

The Leafs did their best to start repairing the rifts caused by three years of playoff failure, giving tickets away for last night, with Vesa Toskala among others serving as door greeters. Cops chased scalpers from the sidewalks to keep the intent honest, while all Leafs came out for the warmup wearing No. 1 sweaters with 'Leaf Fans' stitched on the back.

Robbie Earl had the nicest goal of the night, getting a long Ian White pass as he exited the penalty box after Blake blocked a shot. Stajan and Blake played with Jiri Tlusty, but the most effective line was Moore centring Hollweg and Ben Ondrus, the kind of provocative unit the Leafs will need to see them through some long nights in the regular season.

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REPLAY

TURNING POINT

A seven-minute stretch of the second period where the Leafs forechecked hard, received stellar goalkeeping from Justin Pogge, killed a minor to Robbie Earl and then set him up from the box with a breakaway goal.

EDUCATING THEM

The Leafs truly are putting the emphasis of teaching this year when a record six coaches were on the ice to work with last night's starting lineup early in the day.

Ron Wilson was joined by assistants Tim Hunter, Rob Zettler, Keith Acton, skating coach Graeme Townshend and goalie coach Corey Hirsch.

QUOTE, UNQUOTE

"Don't assume we're going to be a boring team." -- Wilson on the Leafs' preaching defence.

IT BEGINS

Last night marked Wilson's first night behind the Leafs bench.

"I didn't think of that until (Sunday) night (watching the closing ceremony for Yankee Stadium on TV)," Wilson said.

"It got me thinking about the job. The Leafs are kind of a Yankee franchise, at least in Canada and hopefully we can get back where they are."

POINT-GETTERS

Toronto G A P

Dominic Moore 2 0 2

Jiri Tlusty 1 1 2

Carlo Colaiacovo 1 1 2

Jason Blake 0 2 2

Matt Stajan 1 0 1

Robbie Earl 1 0 1

Boyd Devereaux 0 1 1

Mark Bell 0 1 1

Ian White 0 1 1

Ben Ondrus 0 1 1

Jeff Finger 0 1 1

Buffalo

Marek Zagrapan 1 2 3

Clarke MacArthur 0 2 2

Jochen Hecht 1 0 1

Mark Mancari 1 0 1

Philip Gogulla 1 0 1

Andrej Sekera 0 1 1

Jaroslav Spacek 0 1 1

Drew Stafford 0 1 1

Ales Kotalik 0 1 1

NEXT UP

Leafs are in Pittsburgh tomorrow.


Photos