|Jason Blake (left), Viktor Stalberg (centre) and Matt Stajan (right) make up the Maple Leafs top line. (Sun Media/Matt James)
After a six-month hiatus and a nine-game dress rehearsal, the bigger, better and -- just as vital - tougher Maple Leafs launch their 2009-10 NHL campaign tonight against the Montreal Canadiens.
Opening against their ancient rivals on home ice will create a radioactive zone in and around the Air Canada Centre. Coach Ron Wilson said this will be an early lesson not to get too carried away trying to establish a physical presence.
“It’s not so much the fighting, it’s the intimidation factor,” Wilson said. “I want the guys on our fourth line to finish their checks and whatever happens, happens.
“I’m not a proponent of staged fighting. Your job is to aggressively pursue the puck, forecheck and finish every check. If something happens after a good, hard hit or you hit a skill player on the other team...that’s sending a message and having to answer the bell, which you do without reluctance.”
But the Leafs, with last year’s league-worst penalty killing, can’t afford to go overboard.
“Everyone’s getting confused that we’re going to rumble our way through the league,” Wilson said. “But I want Mike Komisarek on the ice, I want Francois Beauchemin, who can fight as well as anyone, on the ice.
“I’ve never done that (sent a player over the boards to start a brawl). I suppose along the way I’ve seen that, but most of those (coaches) were eliminated in a year, because most players don’t respect that from any head coach.”
Many Leafs will be making their Toronto debuts, such as defencemen Komisarek, Beauchemin and Garnet Exelby, while forwards Viktor Stalberg and Jay Rosehill are playing their first NHL games. Fellow rookie Jonas Gustavsson backs up Vesa Toskala in goal.
Rosehill’s father Dan is en route from Alberta for the game , while Stalberg’s parents Maria and Eddy were going to watch a live broadcast in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“We feel really good about ourselves right now,” Wilson said. “What we set out to accomplish (a change of culture starting in training camp), I think we did. We won some games (a 6-3 record) and you want to know how to win out of training camp.
“With all of the off-ice stuff you sense a team that has grown together. We’ve seen we can play an aggressive style and handle any of the rough stuff that comes our way. Now we have to step on the ice and prove it.”
The Canadiens have some new skill players, too, such as Mike Cammalleri and ex-Leaf defenceman Hal Gill.
“It’s a work in progress,” coach Jacques Martin said. “I like what I see so far, the balance, the chemistry. “There are no doubts there are big expectations with both organizations.”
NOTES: D Roman Hamrlik will be a game-time decision for the Habs...F Jamal Mayers and F Nikolai Kulemin are likely scratches for the Leafs.
Mike Komisarek-Tomas Kaberle
Luke Schenn-Francois Beauchemin
Garnet Exelby-Ian White
Jason Blake-Matt Stajan-Viktor Stalberg
Alexei Ponikarovsky-Mikhail Grabovski-Niklas Hagman
Rickard Wallin-John Mitchell-Lee Stempniak
Jay Rosehill-Wayne Primeau-Colton Orr
Andrei Markov-Jaroslav Spacek
Paul Mara-Hal Gill
Josh Gorges-Roman Hamrlik
Max Pacioretty-Scott Gomez-Brian Gionta
Mike Cammalleri-Tomas Plekanec-Andrei Kostitsyn
Guillaume Latendresse-Maxim Lapierre-Matt D’Agostini
Georges Laraque-Glen Metropolit-Travis Moen