Maple Leafs ready for real games to start after successful pre-season

The Toronto Maple Leafs came out firing with a goal in the first thirty seconds, and never looked back eventually beating the Detroit Red Wings 5-0 in the final game of preseason action.

TORONTO – Take your sweet time, Zach Hyman.

Don’t rush back before you’re 100 per cent, Travis Dermott.

By every measure, it would appear the lineup the Toronto Maple Leafs ice on opening night should be capable of holding down the fort just fine, thank you.

Buried deep in this training camp’s hurricane of headlines and deluge of diversions — the cringey Mitch Marner contract comparisons, the embarrassing Auston Matthews allegations, the endless captaincy questions — is the actual hockey. And the fact the 12 forwards, six defenceman and starting goaltender who stride onto Scotiabank Arena’s slick, white canvas Wednesday night to face Scott Sabourin’s Ottawa Senators are pretty darn good at the sport.

Of course, a playoff series victory — or four — is the 2019-20 end game here for a collection of talent as flashy and fun as it is pricy and pressurized.

But if the two pre-season dress rehearsals of Toronto’s NHL-calibre roster have taught us anything, it’s that the journey from October to April should be a blast.

Hope you like Hall & Oates.

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In trouncing the Detroit Red Wings 5-0 at home Saturday night, the core Leafs outscored their only two big-roster pre-season opponents (Montreal being the other one, Wednesday) by a combined 8-0, outshot them 81-42, and controlled 62 per cent of even-strength shot attempts over those 120 minutes, despite sitting back and controlling leads in the third periods.

Andreas Johnsson snapped Saturday’s game-winner 29 seconds after puck drop. By the third period, the locals in the sold-out barn were doing the wave — at an exhibition game.

"Good club this year," said one high-ranking Red Wings executive, prior to the rout. "A lot of firepower."

The Leafs’ revamped penalty kill went six-for-six, with a Trevor Moore shorthanded strike. Assistant coach Paul McFarland’s new-look power play buzzed around and went four-for-eight, with contributions from both units.

Oh, and Frederik Andersen will start Wednesday having not allowed a goal in nine consecutive periods.

"What has he got, like, a .001 goals-against average this pre-season? I’d say that’s not bad," Matthews said. "We’ve got plenty of skill, lots of guys that can put the puck in the net and make plays all around.

"I don’t think there’s really much more you can ask for heading into the season."

Matthews wrapped his fourth exhibition contest with five goals and eight points. Encumbered only by his own swagger and the sprouts of a new Matthews-inspired moustache, William Nylander registered a point per game, including a wristed snipe so sharp Saturday that referee Kevin Pollock requested a replay because his eyes couldn’t see the thing in real time.

Ilya Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot look comfortable in their new cities, while Kasperi Kapanen and Johnsson look like legitimate top-six forwards, ready to seize the special-teams roles now available to them.

Tyson Barrie is as advertised. Fringe guys Martin Marincin and Frederik Gauthier have never started so smooth. And you’ve already read 19 articles about the readiness of super-teen Rasmus Sandin, whom Babcock confirmed postgame is a Maple Leaf.

"All the main pieces you think have been good for a long time are way better," Babcock said. "It’s time to get at ’er."

A club with so few holes? Anything less than home ice in Round 1 should be unacceptable.

Remember: The Maple Leafs dressed seven 20-goal scorers last season, and Nylander was not one of them. The shooters are all back, and they’ll be fed pucks by an overhauled blue line.

Yes, the Toronto defence — forever the weak point of the Matthews-Marner era — is significantly better, deeper. More balanced, more dynamic.

Take it from veteran Jake Muzzin.

"I think so. Not taking anything away from Hainsey and Zaitsev and Ozhiganov — they’re all great players. But we needed a right-handed D, and we got two of them," says Muzzin, tipping his cap to Kyle Dubas’s acquisition of Barrie and Cody Ceci.

"That fills a hole we needed to be filled. There’s some areas we checked off. Now it’s on us to get to work and put wins together."

Andersen doesn’t want to say that this is the sharpest he’s felt heading into a Leafs campaign, but that’s OK. He doesn’t need to. Actions speak louder.

What’s even more telling is the goaltender’s praise for how the five players in front of him are blocking shots and limiting high-danger chances.

"They’re making it pretty easy for me," Andersen said. "They have the puck a lot, and they’ve been relentless when they do lose it."

Though ultimately meaningless in the standings and on the stat sheet, John Tavares argues that these past two weeks of practice have been critical in adapting to new faces, new coaches, new combinations and new systems.

But if ever there was an edition of the Maple Leafs eager to turn the page on the camp narratives and start their mission in earnest, this is it.

"It’s the best time of year," Tavares said. "We’re gettin’ goin’ again."

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