Against all odds

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

DETROIT -- More than a few eyebrows were raised in the cramped quarters of the Joe Louis Arena press box last night when the opening lineups were handed out to the media.

There, beside the name of Vesa Toskala was a large letter "C," inferring the Leafs goalie, in fact, was the Toronto captain on this occasion.

It would be the first of many surprises on this night, none bigger than the final score.

Who could have predicted the Leafs -- recently referred to as almost "an expansion team" by general manager Cliff Fletcher -- would march into The Joe on the evening the Stanley Cup banner was raised and thoroughly spoil the Red Wings party?

Who would have figured this inexperienced team, one that had four players -- Luke Schenn, Jonas Frogren, John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin -- taking part in their first NHL games, would slay the champions.

The final was 3-2 Toronto. No, that is not a misprint.

"This is one of the most satisfying wins I've ever had," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who claimed to know nothing about Toskala's alleged captaincy. "For us, tonight was a really special night. I'm really proud of everyone on this team."

He had plenty of reason to be.

During the pre-game ceremony which, included the exhibiting of the Stanley Cup, the Leafs were on the bench taking it all in. Obviously they were not overwhelmed.

"The young kids were outstanding considering it was their first game and you've seen the Stanley Cup and you're playing the Stanley Cup champs, all the guys you've watched on TV," Wilson said. "Nobody was intimidated. We had our mistakes and our moments but that's why we have a quality goalie. He got the job done."

So, too, did youngsters like Kulemin who scored his first NHL goal with flair, notching the eventual winner at 7:25 of the third with a nifty breakaway move on Wings goalie Chris Osgood.

"They are going to mount the puck for me," Kulemin said through teammate-turned-interpreter Nik Antropov. "I'm very excited.

"(The ceremonies) were very interesting. It was interesting to see the Stanley Cup. Hopefully one day we can win it."

A kid can dream, can't he?

Perhaps these Leafs don't have household names like Tucker, Sundin and McCabe, but, like Kulemin, some of these newcomers really showed what they can do.

Forward Niklas Hagman, for one, certainly has more offensive flair and skill than he is given credit for. Maybe his talent was masked by the stifling defensive system he was involved in with the Dallas Stars, but he really exhibited a more creative side of his game last night.

Centre Mikhail Grabovski displayed his significant upside while second-year forward Jiri Tlusty knitted together some good chances as well.

"I wouldn't say I was surprised at the outcome," Hagman said. "But I was a bit surprised that we were able to maintain our level of play the way we did throughout the whole game after our roller-coaster pre-season."

Osgood was impressed.

"They have a better team than last year," he said. "Some people think just because you switched older players out in Toronto your team is going to be worse. It's not the case. They have some good young players on their team. They really forced the issue on us and forechecked well.

"They held us in our end quite a bit."

Pavel Kubina and Dominic Moore also scored for the Leafs. Tomas Holmstrom replied twice for the defending champions.

As for the "C" beside Toskala's name, it proved to be a hoax.

Unlike the final score.

---

REPLAY

RUMOUR DE JOUR

Sources close to the situation insist that recent rumours are not true suggesting Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph and country music icon Shania Twain have become an item.

Joseph apparently has been approached about the scuttlebutt by curious reporters the past few days, including a member of Sun Media this morning.

Cujo's response? He remained quiet, offered up a wry smile, then headed off to the team bus.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Former Red Wings coach Johnny Wilson, uncle of Leafs coach Ron Wilson, was said to be at The Joe today.

"I haven't had much success in this building in the past," Ron Wilson joked. "The Red Wings used to accuse (Johnny Wilson) of spying on them for me. But, given my lack of success here, maybe he was spying ON me instead."

FRESH FACES

The Leafs had 11 news faces on their roster: Forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Ryan Hollweg, Nikolai Kulemin, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers, John Mitchell, defencemen Jeff Finger, Mike Van Ryn, Jonas Frogren, Luke Schenn and goalie Curtis Joseph.


Photos