Commentary

One thing Leafs will be successful at this season? Playing the spoiler role

Updated: October 10, 2008, 3:53 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Ron Wilson's merry band of castoffs and youngsters figure to play spoiler come March. Why not start on opening night?

The rebuilding/remodeled/patchwork Toronto Maple Leafs dampened a banner-raising night for the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday, skating off with a well-deserved 3-2 victory that made plenty of people smile in the visitor's dressing room at Joe Louis Arena.

"This is one of the more satisfying wins I've ever had," said Wilson, winning in his debut as Leafs coach. "I've had some really great teams come into Detroit and you're hanging on for dear life, and if you can win a game in a shootout, you consider yourself lucky."

The Leafs, a near-unanimous pick by pundits across the hockey universe to miss the playoffs this season, are going to relish that "us-versus-the-world" mentality, fueled at every turn by a veteran coach who has a track record of maximizing talent-challenged rosters (see Anaheim and Washington in previous coaching stops).

And in a market like Toronto, where passionate but often gullible fans get excited at the smallest of victories, Thursday night will no doubt get Leaf Nation excited for the moment.

"Oh, I'm sure there's a lot of people with crayons right now writing down a parade route," Wilson said. "But it's one game, and it's part of the process. Tonight, we were fortunate enough to not make many mistakes, and our attention to detail was pretty good. I'm really proud of the group; they paid attention. We've really only had eight practices, and to have the game figured out somewhat tells you a lot about our players.

"They bought in, and we've had a lot of fun. They're having a great time in there right now, and they should -- they beat the Stanley Cup champions. It's a tremendous accomplishment, and it can only do good things for our confidence, I hope."

Consider the talent gap on the ice Thursday night. The Wings' top two lines had Pavel Datsyuk centering Marian Hossa and Tomas Holmstrom, and Henrik Zetterberg with Johan Franzen and Jiri Hudler. The Leafs countered with Nik Antropov between Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jason Blake, as well as Mikhail Grabovski between Jiri Tlusty and Nikolai Kulemin. Mercy.

Detroit's third line, Valtteri Filppula centering Mikael Samuelsson and Daniel Cleary, could probably pass as the top line in Toronto.

"But that team plays hard; they really do," Wings coach Mike Babcock said of the visitors.

You're going to hear that a lot this season. When a team doesn't have a lot of talent but manages to win some games, you have to come up with other adjectives. And in this case, it's going to be accurate. When this edition of the Maple Leafs has some bout of success this year, it's because they're going to absolutely outwork the opposition in every facet of the game.

And they're going to need contributions from all over the place. They need a number of different players having 15- to 20-goal seasons. On this night, Kulemin scored the winner on a nifty breakaway move. The kid's got hands. Checker Dominic Moore scored the second goal for the Leafs on a gritty effort and rebound chance. Another player on this team getting a chance to be a regular NHLer. He was pumped after his goal.

"I was pretty excited; it was an important goal," Moore said. "We're an excited team. We're a young team and you'll probably see a lot of those types of celebrations this year."

Said Wilson: "For us tonight, it was kind of a special night. I'm really proud of everybody on the team. They were outstanding."

No Mats Sundin, no Bryan McCabe, no Darcy Tucker. But a bunch of guys hoping to prove they belong, not to mention make a bunch of pundits eat their words.

"We're not worried about any of that, whether the critics are positive or negative," Moore said. "Tonight was an incredible challenge against the best team in hockey. We weren't worried about the score. We just wanted to work hard, play well and see what happens. We came out with a win, but it's not a big deal. It's just a nice start."

Can they surprise us and make the playoffs? Unlikely. But rest assured, Wilson will get every ounce of production from this squad. They'll be a better team after the midway mark of the season because he will have fully hammered home how he wants this team to play. The question is whether they'll be too far behind at that point for it to matter.

"They have a better team than last year," Wings goalie Chris Osgood said. "Some people think just because you switched older players out in Toronto, your team is going to be worse. It's not the case. They have some good young players on their team. They really forced the issue on us and forechecked well. They held us in our end quite a bit. And that's off determination and how fired up they were to play us. We're going to have a lot of games like that this year, where teams get excited and fired up to play us. So we have to be ready. That's the way it's going to be."

No reason to worry in Hockeytown. They'll shake off the rust. But it's interesting to note the Anaheim Ducks also dropped their opener last season after winning the Cup, a 4-1 stinker to the lowly Los Angeles Kings in London. All of which just continues to feed this Cup hangover myth (or is fact?) that has plagued teams in recent years.

"Being the defending Stanley Cup champs, teams are going to be ready to play us," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "That's a challenge in itself for our team. We know it's not going to be easy for us. We know it's going to be a tough, long year. We have to be prepared for that, too.

"All the good things that happened last season, we can put behind us now and be ready to play some hockey again."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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