Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS
This is it. After months of jubilation, confusion, disappointment, questioning, anticipation, World Cup of Hockey Hype, Preseason Ups and Downs, and a last gasp recollection of the offseason journey, it’s time for games that matter. Games with fresh blood, old blood, and a new outlook.
Being in the basement last year was brutal to watch, and possibly a bit undeserved. But it was a necessary evil that moved along the process. But that was then, and this is now; we don’t know for sure what the future brings, but we do know the ride is going to be a heck of a lot more fun this year. Let’s look at what’s happening tonight:
Toronto Maple Leafs lines courtesy of our friends at Daily Faceoff
Milan Michalek – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Matt Martin – Peter Holland – Connor Brown
Martin Marincin – Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick – Nikita Zaitsev
There’s some goodness here. Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov are back together; they played well together even when Kadri was cold. James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak play together; they did well together when Phil Kessel was still a thing, but hey, Mitch Marner has a lot of skill on his own.
The Auston line speaks for itself. Mike Babcock is fulfilling his promise to make them the third group. How long does that last? Do they even get through tonight without leading in ice time? The last line is probably the most skilled fourth line Toronto has had in quite some time, and both wings bring a different type of endless tenacity to give some balance. The forwards, I have to say, line up pretty well.
The defence, I’m not so sure. The Leafs finally get three good right-handed defencemen, and Morgan Rielly is still on his wrong side? Nikita Zaitsev looks great, but why is Matt Hunwick still a thing? How long until that shifts up? Oh well, at least Roman Polak isn’t there.
Ottawa Senators lines courtesy of our friends at Daily Faceoff
Mike Hoffman – Kyle Turris – Mark Stone
Zack Smith – Derick Brassard – Bobby Ryan
Phil Varone – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Tom Pyatt
Ryan Dzingel – Chris Kelly – Chris Neil
Marc Methot – Erik Karlsson
Dion Phaneuf – Cody Ceci
Mark Borowiecki – Chris Wideman
That first line looks like a ton of fun, and I won’t lie, I’m very curious to see how Brassard and Ryan work together. But after that, I’ve got questions. First off, who does Varone think he is, trying to steal the role of “Phil who wears 81 on a Canadian team” as if it shouldn’t be unofficially retired? Why is Chris Neil still playing? When did Chris Kelly get back in town?
On the point, the third pairing looks pretty scary in a bad way, to make up for the fact that any pairing that includes Erik Karlsson is scary in a good way. Also, I guess the Phaneuf-Ceci experiment continues, which is a shame for Dion.
It’s looking a lot like Andersen vs. Anderson tonight, in one of the most confusing duels known to man. Leafs fans are a little nervous about Freddy, given his shaky preseason starts, but the hope is that they were a bit of jitters, a bit of bad luck, and a bit of injury recovery and that things will be okay today.
On the other side, Craig Anderson is so unspoken of that, despite playing 60 games last year, when I googled “Anderson hockeydb”, it still redirected me to Frederik Andersen. Either way, I don’t get it; he’s been a quality goalie for the past decade or so, certainly better than anybody ever expected him to be. The Leafs are hoping that he doesn’t start this year off on a high note tonight, though; they’re going to need to get a few in the net to win this one.
What To Look Out For
It’s the game we’ve all been waiting for. You know, James van Riemsdyk’s first regular season game after getting hurt late last season! Well, no. Kinda yes, but no.
Matt Martin’s Leafs debut! Frederik Andersen’s Leafs debut! Kinda yes, but still also no. Milan Michalek’s revenge? Okay, that’s kinda fun, but no.
Tonight marks the introduction of a new era for the Leafs. You can argue that last year played as that too, but for the sake of our sanity, let’s look at what transpired as the parachute out of the last one.
Mitch Marner, was basically born to wear the blue and white, gets to be there for the first day of the ascension, playing in the barn he watched his childhood favourite teams win a few upset playoff series in. Connor Brown and Zach Hyman join him for what isn’t their debuts, but their first opening night experiences.
But then there’s Auston. Maybe he doesn’t come with the years of wanting to wear the sweater, but he’s been waiting a long time to make his NHL debut. He came up taking a road less travelled by, and tonight, he comes in, with the local boys, with the veterans, with William Nylander, with Nikita Zaitsev, and he begins his journey as the representative of the nex generation of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not the Leafs riding on the coattails of their past. Not the Leafs who spent years dreading the present in its moment. But the Leafs with a bright future, where people don’t see a cliff to fall off at the end of the road, but new heights to reach over time. For once, hope seems reasonable rather than delusional.
The circumstances couldn’t be any better. He and the rest of them will do it not just in a road barn, but an enemy barn, though they’ll have some support in the stands to make up for it. On the other side of the ice, the leader of the previous guard, Dion Phaneuf, will be one of the opponents looking to shut them down. Will this group achieve more than his did? The odds lean towards yes, but we won’t know tonight. Or tomorrow. Or for a while yet.
For now, it’s one game, one step closer to the end of the road. Let’s see what the team does with it. Puck drop is at 7:00 PM on Sportsnet or TVA.