The Toronto Maple Leafs bucked the low expectations that have dogged them all pre-season, while Roberto Luongo earned a shutout in his debut as Vancouver Canucks captain, as the 2008-09 NHL season began in earnest Thursday.
The Maple Leafs looked nowhere near the struggling club many projected them to be, at least for one night, as they beat Detroit 3-2. The win came right after the Red Wings hoisted their latest Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters of the Joe Louis Arena.
“This is one of the more satisfying wins I’ve ever had,” said new Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “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.
“For us tonight, it was kind of a special night. I’m really proud of everybody on the team. They were outstanding.”
Meanwhile Alex Burrows scored twice and Roberto Luongo made 25 saves to backstop the Canucks to a 6-0 rout over the Calgary Flames as the NHL played its first games this season in North America after opening with four games in Europe last week.
The win capped an emotional evening for the Canucks, who honoured defenceman Luc Bourdon before the game. Bourdon died in a motorcycle accident in May.
“I almost cried a little bit on the ice,” said Burrows, Bourdon’s closet friend on the Canucks. “It was tough watching.
“For sure this was a special night for everyone in this locker-room. Luc was one of my best friends. I think everyone showed up and played a good game. It was an emotional night for us but I think once we got going, and got our legs going, we played pretty well.”
In other NHL action, Boston edged Colorado 5-4 in a wild game, while San Jose cruised to a 4-1 win over Anaheim.
At Detroit, Nikolai Kulemin’s first NHL goal proved to be the winner as the Maple Leafs stunned the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Maple Leafs fielded a team that featured eight new players. Four of them, including the 22-year-old Kulemin, were playing their first NHL game.
The team aggressively forechecked and celebrated after goals. Dominic Moore — one of the few veterans on the team — leapt more than a foot off the ice after scoring in the second period.
“I was pretty excited, it was an important goal,” he said afterwards. “We’re an excited team. We’re a young team and you’ll probably see a lot of those types of celebrations this year.”
It may only be one of 82 games, but the Leafs demonstrated that they are capable of being very competitive on any given night.
Perhaps the most encouraging development of all came in the third period when Toronto managed to hold off a spirited comeback attempt from the Wings. Goaltender Vesa Toskala had to make a good save on a streaking Mikael Samuelsson with about three minutes to go before withstanding a late flurry while the Wings were on a power play.
The players poured off the visiting bench with wide grins when the buzzer finally sounded to end the game.
Pavel Kubina, Moore and Kulemin had the goals for Toronto while Tomas Holmstrom had both in reply for Detroit.
The Red Wings started the evening by raising a banner to the rafters to commemorate their Stanley Cup victory in June. Members of last year’s team — including retired players Dominik Hasek and Dallas Drake — were on the ice surface as the 11th championship banner went up.
It wasn’t long before they were reminded just how tough it will be to win another one.
“First off, give Toronto credit,” said Wings coach Mike Babcock. “They were quicker than us. They worked hard. They wanted it.”
And he doesn’t think that had anything to do with the distraction of the pre-game ceremony.
“I don’t accept that,” said Babcock. “Bottom line is we found out tonight what level the NHL is played at.”
At Vancouver, Henrik Sedin had a goal and an assist while newcomer Steve Bernier scored his first goal in a Vancouver uniform.
Defenceman Mattias Ohlund, on the power play, and Rick Rypien, short-handed, also scored for the Canucks. Daniel Sedin collected three assists.
Burrows pointed up to the sky after his goal at 1:57 of the second period gave the Canucks a 3-0 lead. He made it 4-0 at 2:48 of the third with a shot from the edge of the faceoff circle.
The two teams don’t like each other and it didn’t take long for the bad blood to heat up. Flames defenceman Jim Vandermeer punched Bernier in the face with a gloved fist in the first period. Canucks forward Ryan Kesler slammed his stick into the boards after taking a high-stick in the face from Michael Cammalleri.
Things boiled over in the third when Calgary’s Daymond Langkow threw a punch at Luongo during a scrum in front of the Vancouver net. Forward Jannik Hansen dropped his gloves and went after Langkow while all the other players on the ice squared off.
“We didn’t let up,” said Luongo, who made a couple key saves in the first period. “We kept going after them the whole game.
“We saw they started getting frustrated and we didn’t try to get involved in that stuff.”
Bernier later became a home-town hero when he came to Henrik Sedin’s aid and went toe-to-toe with Dion Phaneuf. The sellout crowd of 18,630 chanted “Bernier, Bernier.”
Bourdon’s last game-worn jersey was presented to his family prior to the match. A heart-warming video showing pictures of Bourdon as a child, him playing junior hockey and his days with the Canucks, was played on the big screen. Tom Cochrane and Ken Greer of the band Red Rider played a live version of their hit song “Big League”.
Bourdon’s mother, grandmother, uncle, aunt and girlfriend attended the emotional ceremony.
Vancouver players will wear LB on their helmets this year in memory of Bourdon.