Toronto Maple Leafs John Pohl sends Ottawa Senators Antoine Vermette into the boards during NHL regular season action in Toronto Wednesday. (CP/Adrian Wyld)
Toronto, which dropped seven of eight contests against Ottawa last season, lost its NHL season opener 3-1 to their Ontario rivals at Air Canada Centre. A chance at redemption comes quick with a Thursday night affair at the Scotiabank Place.
It was a shaky start for two of the new faces in the Leafs lineup.
Defenceman Hal Gill, signed on July 1, looked as slow as advertised, Senators winger Chris Neil blowing past him on the second goal. Not what you want to see in the new NHL where speed and skill is as paramount as ever.
Another concern for Leaf fans, even though it's only the first of 82 games, was the jittery performance of new staring netminder Andrew Raycroft in the early going. Acquired in a draft day gamble from Boston by GM John Ferguson on June 24, the 26-year-old Raycroft gave up some fat rebounds and at times looked a little unsure of himself in the opening 30 minutes.
On the opening Ottawa goal, Raycroft kicked out a long rebound which Patrick Eaves gladly scooped up and redirected into an open side. Raycroft looked weak on the third goal, Dany Heatley's shot along the ice from an acute angle somehow squeezing between the goalie's legs, in part because he was out of position.
But Raycroft settled down in the second half of the game, a positive sign heading into Thursday's game. He won the praise of his new fans late in the second period when he stopped star centre Jason Spezza on a clear breakaway, a big save that kept his team two goals down and with a fighting chance entering the final period. Another big breakaway save on Heatley midway through the third period signalled Raycroft had indeed shaken off the opening nerves.
Still, on a team that will be on the bubble to make it into the post-season, Raycroft will need better nights than this, from start to finish. He'll need to steal a few. Between Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour, the Leafs enjoyed top-level goaltending for seven years, which served to cover the team's other warts and make them consistent playoff performers.
The onus on Raycroft shutting the door will especially be key in a season where his team isn't expected to score too many goals. That was apparent on opening night, the Leafs' power play was shut down on five chances and their five-on-five pressure nearly non-existent. That leaves Raycroft with very little margin for error this season.