There's likely not a more difficult test in the NHL this season than the one the new-look Toronto Maple Leafs faced Monday night, and for the most part, they passed.
Up against a San Jose Sharks team loaded with eight Olympians and that had only lost three games in regulation since mid-December, the Leafs outhit, outshot and, for the most part, outhustled one of the best teams in the league.
What they couldn't do was outscore them.
The turning point came deep in the third period with the score tied: A lost battle behind the net, a poor block attempt by a young defenceman and the game suddenly on the stick of San Jose's Ryane Clowe, who iced a 3-2 victory with what was likely the easiest of his 15 tallies this season.
It was a break - and a team like the Sharks often needs only one.
"We did a lot of real good things, but we're not happy with the outcome," said Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who finished minus-1. "They got a couple good breaks. We played hard all night, they played hard all night and that's the way it goes sometimes."
Where Toronto proved the most effective was in limiting the Sharks' vaunted top line - Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau - to a relative pittance (two assists) considering all three are among the top eight scorers in the league.
It's a trio that will also star for Canada at the Games beginning a week from Tuesday against the not-so-vaunted Norwegians, who may struggle a wee bit more to contain those stars than Leaf coach Ron Wilson's checking line did on Monday night.
"They took advantage of a couple turnovers with dangerous people out there," Wilson said of his former team.
In addition to Clowe, the dangerous Sharks swimming in Air Canada Centre waters were defenceman Dan Boyle - another Canadian Olympian - and centre Joe Pavelski - one of Wilson's prized pets with Team USA. Both capitalized in a three-minute span early in the second period, turning a 1-0 Leafs lead off a first-period goal by rookie Tyler Bozak into a 2-1 advantage in their favour in short order.
Toronto's Bozak-led top line, however, was its best on the night and replied late in the middle frame. After a bone-headed penalty by San Jose enforcer Jody Shelley, the Leafs tied the score at two with 51 seconds left in the second when defenceman Dion Phaneuf's point shot fell in front and on the stick of sniper Phil Kessel, as he made good on his sixth goal in the past five games.
Outshooting San Jose 26-16 heading into the third, things appeared to be in Toronto's favour, but a bit of a stalemate of a final frame went the Sharks way on that late break and netminder Evgeni Nabokov - a Vezina Trophy candidate - shut the door the rest of the way.
In the other net, it wasn't much of a night to remember for Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who looked decidedly average on the first two goals and had his shutout streak as a Leaf snapped at 143 minutes on Boyle's goal.
"Sometimes the puck seems to hit you everywhere and you seem to get lucky and sometimes the puck seems to find a way to get in," Giguere said. "The key thing is not to get down with this type of game. We outplayed a pretty good team, obviously one of the better teams in this league. As young as we are, for us to be able to outplay them is a really good sign for us."
The game's most intriguing sidebar in the youth department was the fact the Leafs used an emergency call-up to bring 19-year-old junior star Nazem Kadri up for his NHL debut. With two forwards - Christian Hanson and Fredrik Sjostrom - ailing with suspected cases of food poisoning and Toronto's minor-league franchise in Abbotsford, B.C., for a game, Kadri signed a one-game amateur tryout agreement to fill a roster hole.
The Leafs' top prospect, picked seventh overall in the 2009 draft, skated in more than 17 minutes but didn't make much impact in the game, likely his last until next season. Kadri has been on fire with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League lately, scoring 38 points in his past 18 games, and is in ninth in league scoring.
His welcome-to-the-NHL moment included starting the game and losing the opening draw to Thornton at centre ice.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking," Kadri said. "Your first NHL game and you're going up against four Olympians on the ice there. I was a bit star struck, but after the first few shifts, I started feeling more confident and comfortable and that's when I started playing my game."
NOTES: Leafs coach Ron Wilson didn't sugar-coat his thoughts on Nazem Kadri's NHL debut. "He skated well but this was a great opportunity for him to have a see what the NHL's all about," Wilson said. "He had a lot of turnovers and things he can probably get away with in junior hockey that you can't get away with in our league, let alone against a top team." … The Sharks, meanwhile, were just as blunt in their assessment of their play against the Leafs, with Dan Boyle calling the game "ugly" on their end. "Obviously we weren't very good in the first period, we were in sand, clearly outworked," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "I tried to spark the team somehow by shuffling lines, trying some different things. I'm not even sure that worked until the third period, but we found a way to win. It wasn't our best effort by any means. I thought we looked sluggish and slow for whatever reason." … With many of the questions he was fielding Monday in Toronto on the topic of the upcoming Olympics, Sharks star Joe Thornton was in fine form cracks-wise for the gathered media when asked about the weight on his shoulders playing for Canada in Canada. "How much do 30 million people weigh?" he said. "A buck-eighty each? What's 180 times 30 million?" … Oh, only 2.5 tonnes, Joe … "We can handle it." … Last night's game was the Sharks debut for new defenceman Niclas Wallin, acquired Sunday night for a second-round pick from the Carolina Hurricanes. Wallin was a bit disoriented after arriving in Toronto late, saying he wasn't sure what day it was, but was pleased to have landed with one of the best team's in the league. "It's a great chance to come to a winning team and a team that has every tool to win a championship … I'm the happiest man in the world right now." … The Leafs left Toronto after the game to fly to Boston, where they will attend the funeral of Brendan Burke Tuesday morning. Burke, the 21-year-old son of Leafs GM Brian Burke, was killed in a car accident last Friday. … Fifteen different teams had scouts in attendance at Monday night's game as Friday's Olympic trade freeze approaches.
NEXT GAME: Friday against the St. Louis Blues, 8 p.m.
TV: Leafs TV