Leafs' opening win owes a lot to AHL grads

MONTREAL -- Nazem Kadri was flying. Mike Kostka was the best defenseman on the ice for either team. Ben Scrivens looked right at home.

Of course for these three Maple Leafs, it’s the middle of their 2012-13 season, the trio having spent the first half in the AHL.

In what will be a trend to monitor over the first two to three weeks of this delayed, shortened NHL season, teams getting quality minutes from AHL graduates will no question have an edge coming out of the gate.

And I stress the AHL angle, not so much those who played across the pond in other leagues with bigger rinks, where the game is so different from what we have here in North America. Those who played overseas will have an adjustment period reacquainting themselves with the more physical NHL game. Teams that will get key contributions from players who have played in the AHL this season, where the systems are similar to what their parent NHL clubs use and where the rinks are the same size, will get a boost early on.

On this night, in hockey’s emotional center of the universe, the atmosphere was playoff-like before the game, but was followed by a game that had preseason quality.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: The Leafs' 2-1 win was an ugly display of hockey, very much the equivalent of a September preseason affair, what with broken plays and missed passes galore. What else can you expect when the majority of these players haven’t played in half a calendar year?

The difference? The AHL graduates on Toronto’s side. Montreal’s roster on this night didn’t have a single player who played in the AHL this season, and it showed.

So kudos to Leafs GM Dave Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle, who made the gutsy decision to go with the kids this week in forming their final roster, jettisoning Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly to make room for kids Kadri and Leo Komarov (another player who played in the AHL this season), plus the decision go with Scrivens over the incumbent starter in James Reimer (who didn’t play during the lockout).

"The factors were: first, that he had a 30-game head start on a lot of people," Carlyle said of starting Scrivens, who appeared in just his 13th career NHL game. "And he looked sharp in practice. We just felt in this situation, that he would be the guy that would give us the best chance at success tonight."

How about Kostka? This was the first NHL game for the 27-year-old, a late bloomer the Leafs scooped away from the Tampa organization via free agency who finished second in ice time on the team, at 22:59.

"I thought Mike Kostka was a dominant player for us," said Carlyle. "He played a lot of minutes for us. He didn’t make many mistakes out there. He looked like a guy that was comfortable playing in this type of situation. And hats off to him. He had a great year in the American Hockey League and it really is astounding that he had never played a game before tonight in this league."

Kostka, playing on the first defense pair with captain Dion Phaneuf, had an assist on the opening goal while playing in both power-play and penalty-killing situations. Why not, after he put up 34 points in 34 games with the AHL Marlies this season?

"Awesome, pretty sweet," Kostka said with a smile about his night. "Being my first game, being in Montreal, and getting the win -- just awesome."

Kostka wholeheartedly agreed with the notion that having played to this point in the AHL was a definite boost.

"Yeah for me, I felt good, I feel like I’m midseason form," said Kostka.

Carlyle said afterward he felt bad he played Kadri only 9:53, but when the kid did play, he was noticeable. He opened the scoring and was buzzing on every shift.

And, yes, he was also cognizant of the head start he had on some players on the ice thanks to his AHL season.

"I definitely feel that way as well," said Kadri. "I think my legs are there, my lungs are there and we had a pretty good pace to training camp, too."

For Kadri, this is a big season in his fledgling career. After failing to stick with the big club last season, the first-round pick wants to stay up permanently. The Leafs' brass feels so strongly about his potential that sources indicate Nonis has told the Vancouver Canucks there’s no way he would ever be part of a Roberto Luongo trade.

All in all, a big season here for Kadri.

"It is," he said. "That’s something I’ve definitely been thinking about. Especially when the coach is giving me all the confidence in the world and believes in me, that’s what I think I needed."

Of course, speaking of the never-ending Luongo talk, the fact that Toronto’s goaltender wasn’t lit up like a Christmas tree on opening night cannot be ignored.

No question, the Canucks’ front office is hoping Toronto continues its goaltending struggles from last season and feels the pressure to deal for Luongo.

On this night, Scrivens looked poised in the Leafs’ victory, stopping 21 of 22 shots.

"We don’t ask our goaltenders to win the hockey game, we ask our goaltenders to give you a chance," said Carlyle. "And I thought Ben Scrivens gave us a chance."

Just like he has all season long in the AHL.