A different feeling at ACC

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

This wasn't just another opening night of just another hockey season at the Air Canada Centre.

Even in defeat, this felt different. This felt more significant. The anticipation wasn't false and the excitement wasn't the usual Maple Leafs monotone. The feeling, outside and inside the building, was that somehow this is the start of something.

Something to build upon.

"We should have had the two points," said Tomas Kaberle, in his 11th opening night as a Leaf. "I like this team. I like some of the new guys."

He liked the first 50 minutes. The rest he wasn't so sure about.

So much is new about this team, with its building jazzed up, nine of 20 players turning a new Leaf. In other years, with other Leaf teams, there was false optimism based as much on blind loyalty as any kind of reality.

"I like the kid," Kaberle said. The kid doesn't seem to play like a kid.

"This was a dream of mine," said Viktor Stalberg, the Swedish rookie from an American university. "It felt great. You only go through this once."

FIRST IMPRESSION

One first game. One opening night. One NHL point for Stalberg. One first impression that could be lasting.

Clearly, these are not your old, stale Maple Leafs. They may not be old enough or skilled enough to be important yet this NHL season, but almost everyone seems to be on trial, and there is something about that to like.

"If you don't do your job, there is ... another guy to take it," Kaberle said.

The comfort level around the ACC comes from those sitting in the Platinum seats, not those on the Leafs bench.

"I thought," Stalberg said, "this was my best game."

He admitted to being nervous about his NHL debut. He worried that all he had accomplished in the pre-season would be set aside when the regular season began. He thought about all that. "I think I'll have trouble sleeping tonight, settling down."

There is only one chance to make a first impression with a new team and Stalberg made a good one.

The new veterans on defence -- Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin -- not so much. But that's the charm of a new season, a new team. It's not unlike opening the fancily wrapped packages on Christmas Day. You don't really know what you're getting until it's there. And the impressions were varied:

SAFEST LEAF

Rickard Wallin, the old rookie from Sweden, played the part of safest Leaf, dumping in deep almost every puck that came his way.

Komisarek overplayed the game, letting his emotions get the better of him. He needs to be better. And he knows that.

The new fighters, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill both fought on cue, then disappeared.

Some other things to like: Lee Stempniak making plays; Matt Stajan scoring twice; John Mitchell providing offence from the third line; Vesa Toskala making what could have been a game-saving stop on Brian Gionta with the Leafs playing giveaway; Kaberle being the best defenceman on a team whose defence is advertised to be better.

Some things not to like: Luke Schenn's sophomore jinx on opening night; the Leafs' penalty-killing (again); the Leafs' failure to take advantage with a 3-2 lead and all kinds of scoring chances on Carey Price.

Some things, like the Toronto crowd, never change. But these Leafs are changing. That was apparent even in an overtime defeat. This wasn't just another opening night, another season to begin without hope.

For Viktor Stalberg, this was a night to remember forever. For the veteran Kaberle, this was a fresh start. One opening day at a time. One defeat that didn't feel like one.

STEVE.SIMMONS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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