Being led to slaughter?

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Rather than being wallflowers at someone else's party tonight, the Maple Leafs may take a look at how the other half lives.

So when the Stanley Cup banner is raised at Joe Louis Arena prior to the NHL season opener for both teams, coach Ron Wilson hopes to take his young Leafs out of the dressing room to watch the ceremony honouring the reigning champion Red Wings.

"It might not be a bad idea as a way of looking up and saying: 'You know what, maybe in a couple of years we'll be lucky enough to do the same thing ourselves,' " Wilson said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena following the team's final pre-season practice.

"(Instead of) sitting in the dressing room and thinking like you are facing a firing squad ... get out there and soak up some of the energy."

While not necessarily the firing squad, the Leafs don't enter this rebuilding season quietly. And let's be honest, tonight's festivities could be as close as they get to a Stanley Cup banner for several years.

After the Red Wings tonight, they face the Montreal Canadiens in Saturday's home opener at the Air Canada Centre. Four of their first six games are against teams that topped the century mark in points last season, so on paper anyway, it could get ugly early.

Wilson said he's fine with the stout start because it will give his youthful troops a realistic early barometer of what awaits.

"You couldn't get two more intense games," Wilson said. "This is a good thing. If we were to go out there against what you might call the softer teams and get a couple of wins ... I know how this works, they'll be planning the parade route."

Other than a lack of proven scoring and 10 newcomers in the starting lineup, Wilson and his staff know little about what they have for the 2008-09 season. In fact, the coach acknowledged yesterday that he is anxious to see how they respond to the "bullets" of regular season as opposed to the "paint ball" of the exhibition schedule.

The players that have made the opening night roster have spent little time together, with high-tempo practices the past two days, the only true chance for the coaching staff to work seriously with the starting lineup.

"It's a young team with a lot of new faces, so we definitely have to outwork our opponents every night," said Jason Blake, who will start the season on a line with Alex Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov. "I think we have the group of guys to do that. This group has come together well in a short period of time. It's good to see and we're going to need that."

They'll need plenty more to be competitive against teams such as the Red Wings, of course. And Wilson won't hesitate to put his youngsters into tough situations to see how they handle the heat.

But with so many players anxious to prove themselves to the coaching staff and a stated lack of urgency by management, tonight marks the beginning of the process.

"Young guys are always full of excitement and ambition," Ponikarovsky said. "They want to show they belong. I know myself when I first made the team I just wanted to show I belonged here. We have a lot of guys in that situation."


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