'Faster, exciting' Leafs, Phaneuf says

Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf  participates in pre-game skate before  National Hockey League preseason...

Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf participates in pre-game skate before National Hockey League preseason game between Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto, October 1, 2011. (ALEX UROSEVIC/QMI Agency)

DAVE HILSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:07 PM ET

The Maple Leafs hit the Air Canada Centre ice on Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens with a revamped lineup and the goal of ending the longest post-season drought in franchise history.

It’s been six long seasons now since the Leafs have made the playoffs and Toronto is hoping to get its 2011-12 campaign off to a flying start with a victory over division rival and old foe Montreal.

General manager Brian Burke has continued to bring in new faces in an effort to make the Leafs both speedier and bigger, and also to satisfy a fan base that grows more despondent with each passing season.

Among the newcomers in the line-up are defencemen Jake Gardiner, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson and forwards Matthew Lombardi, David Steckel, Matt Frattin and Philippe Dupuis.

“The pieces we added were fast pieces,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said after the team’s morning skate at the ACC. “You look at Lombardi, Liles, Gardiner coming in and making the team. Franson skates really well for a big guy. We’re a faster team, we’re an exciting group.

“You look at Steckel, he’s going to help us a lot. Just practising with him one day and having a pre-game skate, I really like the move we made. He’s a big, strong guy. That’s going to add a lot to our team.”

Steckel, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound centreman who was just picked up this week off New Jersey for a fourth-round draft pick in 2012, will start on the wing with Dupuis as his centre and returnee Colby Armstrong on the right side.

“It (playing on the wing) will be a little bit easier for him (to adjust to playing with a new team), and then have him take lots of faceoffs,” coach Ron Wilson said of Steckel in his pre-game media address.

A battle of third lines could be key in the outcome of tonight’s contest and Steckel and his linemates should match up well against their Montreal counterparts. Steckel, who was the league leader in faceoffs won last season, at a rate of 62.3% (511 of 820), should easily have the upper-hand on the Canadiens’ David Desharnais when it comes to the blue circles.

Lombardi, meanwhile, who could prove to be the steal of the off-season for the Leafs, missed almost the entire 2010-11 campaign with a concussion suffered while playing for the Nashville Predators, so he won’t see a lot of action tonight and will start the season on the fourth line.

“I’m going to see how he’s adjusting to game speed, he only has one exhibition game under his belt,” Wilson said. “If he can take more, I’d love to have him a little higher up in the line-up. He admits himself he still has a bit of rust and the game is pretty fast out there.”

Although it’s only the first game of a long 82-game season, it’s an important one for the Leafs, who play their first five games at home this season. Wilson’s job likely is at stake if the team doesn’t make the playoffs — and quite possibly long before that if the team flounders — so it’s crucial to pick up points against division rivals.

“It’s a divisional game, whether it’s now or in April, division games are four-point games and we’ve got to come out with a big effort,” Phaneuf said. “I’m excited to get going, as is everyone else in our room. Training camp has been long enough.”

James Reimer, who is out to prove that last season’s 20-10-5 record wasn’t a fluke, will start in net for the Leafs.


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