Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, right, drives Buffalo Sabres forward Derek Roy into the boards during first period preseason NHL hockey in Toronto on Sunday September 27, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - After a pre-season schedule that was as busy as any in the league, the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking forward to some much-needed relaxation.
The team was on a bus headed north to Huntsville, Ont., within an hour of losing its pre-season finale 7-6 to Buffalo on Sunday night. No one was in more need of rest than young Viktor Stalberg, who played eight of the team's nine pre-season games and is "probably" the only rookie to earn a roster spot out of training camp, according to coach Ron Wilson.
Stalberg scored his team-leading sixth pre-season goal against the Sabres - making it three straight nights he found the net.
Afterwards, the fatigue was evident in his voice as he answered questions in the dressing room. It's no wonder given that the speedy 23-year-old was the biggest surprise of training camp, exceeding all expectations except maybe his own.
"It's been three long weeks not only for me, but for everyone," said Stalberg.
That helps explain why the Leafs are heading out of town for a little bonding before starting the regular season at home to Montreal on Thursday night. It's also the reason why no one seemed to upset about a sloppy effort against the Sabres to end the exhibition schedule.
"I think both teams were disinterested most of the night," said Wilson. "It's your last exhibition game. Lord knows, we've played enough of them."
Tomas Vanek scored twice for the Sabres (4-1-1), who trailed twice in the game. Clarke MacArthur, Nathan Gerbe, Jochen Hecht, Tim Kennedy and Matt Ellis also had goals.
Lee Stempniak, with two, Stalberg, Jason Blake, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski replied for Toronto (6-3-0).
Even though all seven goals got past Leafs No. 1 goalie Vesa Toskala, he can hardly be blamed for the lack of defence that was played in front of him. Wilson indicated that he felt a little sorry for the Finn and announced that Toskala would be starting the season opener - "so there's no controversy."
On Sunday, the Maple Leafs returned Nazem Kadri to the OHL's London Knights and sent young winger Christian Hanson to the AHL's Toronto Marlies. Even though Tyler Bozak was among the players headed to Huntsville, he's likely to be sent down before the team has to submit its 23-man roster on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Stalberg is about to start his rookie season in the NHL.
"He'll probably be the only one," said Wilson.
The Leafs sixth-round pick from 2006 developed into one of the team's most popular players in training camp and only enhanced his popularity during Sunday's game against the Sabres. Standing at the top of the crease, he redirected Tomas Kaberle's pass behind Patrick Lalime to open the scoring.
He also found himself on the ice in the frantic final minute as the Maple Leafs pushed for the tying goal.
"We wanted to score," said Stalberg. "I think I've shown that I can score."
Even though Toronto had nine exhibition games in 12 days - only the Vancouver Canucks played as often - the team didn't once stay in a hotel during training camp.
The trip up north will provide the players their first chance to room together and will include a number of activities geared towards building cohesion. A round of golf as planned, as is a little bit of paintball.
With so many new faces set to don the blue and white this season, the players seemed extremely eager to get away as a group.
"It's awesome," said Stempniak. "I think it's sort of underrated in terms of the team dynamic."
If the Leafs are in need of any good omens once they return to the city, they can look to a solid pre-season record.
The last time the team won six exhibition games was 2003 and it went on to make the playoffs the following spring. It hasn't happened since.
However, as the players cleared out of the dressing room and started thinking about their bonding excursion, they made it very clear they were looking to wipe the slate clean.
"It's all out the window now," said defenceman Luke Schenn. "Now it's all forgotten."
Notes: Jason Allison's bid to make the team on a tryout ended up falling short. "He's out of the plans," said Wilson ... Fans cheered when a picture of Kadri was shown on the scoreboard during the first period ... Toronto forward Alexei Ponikarovsky sat out one night after being high-sticked just above his right eye ... Buffalo beat the Maple Leafs five of the six times they played last season ... Announced attendance was 18,388.