School is in for Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

"Go Leafs Go" has had a hollow ring for a few years, but the new fan cheer one day could be a selection of U.S. college fight songs from Notre Dame, Denver and Vermont.

The best part of Toronto's pre-season so far has been the play of NCAA grads Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Christian Hanson, who have held momentum from the rookie tournament to the main camp to last night's debut in NHL exhibition play.

Together with first-round pick Nazem Kadri and a bulked-up roster, the Leafs kept it close against the Boston Bruins in a 3-2 loss, a game staged for free as a gesture to the club's long-suffering fans. A crowd of 16,872 saw five fights, plenty of youthful exuberance that led to two goals -- and the mistakes that go hand-in-hand -- including the college kids' breakdown on ex-Leaf Andy Wozniewski's winner.

"That can easily be corrected," coach Ron Wilson said. "We're looking for how hard they compete, are they fast enough, are they smart enough? We have speed to burn."

That was evident when Bozak scored on a short-handed rush, splitting the Boston defence and roofing a goal on Dany Sabourin.

"I blacked out," laughed Bozak, who had 23 points in 19 games for the University of Denver last year.

Stalberg had his own highlight, showing off his wheels by circling all five Bruins inside the blue line searching for an open man. When Wilson put Kadri at centre on a power play, he passed to Stalberg, who shot from a bad angle looking to get Hanson a rebound, but instead found Sabourin's five-hole.

"You've got to keep skating. You never know what can happen when you keep moving your feet and the coaches are looking at you, too," Stalberg said.

The big Swedish-born Stalberg was a Hobey Baker Award finalist at Vermont and has been living with Bozak and Hanson this summer.

"We play a lot of video games, we go to a lot of movies, so it's been great," Bozak said.

The guy cheering loudest last night must have been Harvard man Brian Burke. The Leafs general manager was given a chance to show off the kids and some of his revamped veteran lineup. Francois Beauchemin was a rock on defence with Garnet Exelby and Jeff Finger, whose hit triggered Bozak's short-handed goal. Remember, the Leafs were last in penalty killing last year.

And they didn't waste time throwing around their newly acquired weight, either. Exelby spilled Blake Wheeler on the first shift and Colton Orr rocked Wozniewski.

Jason Allison in his first game in three years, seemed to have his timing on passes down pat, but the pace of the game, which had given him problems after the lockout, seemed to take a toll.

"Allie looked like he pooped out in the second half, but that's to be expected," Wilson said. "I'll give him every opportunity. He won't leave here saying he wasn't given a fair chance."

The Leafs are back at it tonight against Philadelphia in London, Ont., then travel to Pittsburgh tomorrow night before returning to the ACC Saturday against the Flyers. Hoping to bring starting goalie Vesa Toskala along slowly after his off-season surgeries, Wilson intends to use him for the whole game against the Flyers that night.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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