It's for real, are the Leafs?

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

HUNTSVILLE -- The players, for the most part, came to training camp in top shape.

Management traded and cut and signed and rebuilt a roster that has 10 new faces from the 20 who wore the blue and white Maple Leaf for the previous season opener.

Tonight at the Air Canada Centre, amid the gala trimmings and hype surrounding the curtain raiser, the Leafs will begin to show how far down the long road to respectability they have come.

That it starts against their arch-rival Montreal Canadiens adds some flash to the marquee. But after a franchise record four consecutive seasons missing the playoffs, it's time for substance over style.

"I think we're a strong team," centre Matt Stajan said as the team wrapped up a training camp retreat in cottage country. "Now it's up to us to prove it when the real thing starts."

For all the optimism surrounding general manager Brian Burke's machinations in a busy and productive off-season, there are all kinds of questions.

Burke said recently he "understands the impatience" of Leafs fans and plans to turn the team into contender as fast as possible. This being Toronto, too much emphasis will be placed on tonight's result against a division and historic rival with its own share of questions.

It's a safe bet, then, that the first bad goal given up by the goaltender on the hot seat, Vesa Toskala, will be met with boos.

With a rebuilt defence and the acquisition of former Boston Bruins sniper Phil Kessel (out to November because of injury) at least the compass finally seems pointed in the right direction.

Coach Ron Wilson is hoping scoring will come from the freshly created No. 1 unit of Matt Stajan, Jason Blake and training camp sensation Viktor Stalberg and a second line of Mikhail Grabovsky, Nik Hagman and Alex Ponikarovsky.

Behind them comes a new dimension, a fourth line that will make for some long nights at the ACC and other venues the Leafs visit. Tonight's bruiser line will feature heavyweight Colton Orr alongside Wayne Primeau and another guy willing to drop his gloves, Jay Rosehill.

"You don't have all skill players on your team and then cry when your team's getting punched out," Wilson said following another two-hour practice at the Jack Bionda Arena. "You need guys who have backbone."

As with everything hockey in Toronto, the result tonight will get overblown, a fact Wilson is reminding his players. Remember a year ago when the Leafs upset the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings on opening night?

"It's probably going to be easier for Montreal to play in Toronto than for us," Wilson said. "When you play your first game at home a lot of times, guys are nervous and want to impress."

"I hope we go out there and play a controlled game and do all the little things, and pay attention to our game plan."

The foundation of that plan is defence, where a top four of Mike Komisarek, Tomas Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin and Luke Schenn should go a long way to reducing the Leafs goals against average which was the worst in the league.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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