The Toronto Maple Leafs' five-game trip should be known simply as The Reunion Tour.
First, there was a visit to one of Leafs general manager Brian Burke's former teams, the Vancouver Canucks, which served as a warm-up to his first return visit to the Anaheim Ducks since he left almost a year ago to work for the Leafs. It was also Leafs defenceman François Beauchemin's homecoming, as he won a Cup with Burke in 2007, with the Ducks.
Now that the Leafs finally won their first game of the NHL season in Anaheim, the nostalgia does not end there.
Tonight, it will be Leafs winger Niklas Hagman's turn, as he pays his first visit to his old team, the Dallas Stars, since signing as a free agent with the Leafs last season. Then, after playing the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night, the Leafs will finish the tour when defenceman Mike Komisarek plays his first game in Montreal against the Canadiens since he left to sign with the Leafs.
The connections between the Leafs, who were given the day off from practice yesterday, and the Stars do not end with Hagman, who hit town fresh off a hat trick in the Leafs' 6-3 win over the Ducks. They range from the direct - Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk left the Leafs to take the job in Dallas and head coach Marc Crawford's first professional job was with the Leafs' farm team - to the indirect. Forward James Neal grew up a fervent Leafs fan in Whitby, Ont., and his fondest hockey memory is the hat trick he scored as a rookie last December in his first visit to the Air Canada Centre in the Stars' 8-2 win over the Leafs.
"You can only dream about playing them," Neal, 22, said yesterday. "That first game at the Air Canada Centre was pretty special. It was on Dec. 23, so I got to stay home for Christmas with my family right after it. I grew up as a Leaf fan, all of my friends are Leaf fans and my whole household growing up were Leaf fans, too."
And there is Fabian Brunnstrom, the close friend of the newest hockey hero in Toronto, Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. They will face each other for the first time in the NHL tonight because the Leafs' first win was also Gustavsson's first NHL win, which landed him the No. 1 job on a team desperately searching for anyone who could make a save.
Brunnstrom, 24, and Gustavsson played together for Farjestads in the Swedish Elite League until Brunnstrom signed with the Stars in the summer of 2008 as a free agent. He tried his best to persuade Gustavsson to join him but failed.
At 25, Gustavsson is a late-bloomer, even for a goaltender. Brunnstrom says his ability to harness his quickness in his 6-foot-3 frame is the goalie's best attribute and was the product of hard work.
"He was good but he wasn't that good the year he came to Farjestads [in 2007]" Brunnstrom said. "It took him two years. He worked every day on details. He watched video and just became better.
"He would work every day. If we had a one-hour practice, he would stay out with the goalie coach for one hour extra. It paid off in the end."
Gustavsson showed his reflexes by stretching one of those long legs to make an eye-popping save on Ducks forward Erik Christensen early in the first period Monday night. His teammates said that gave them the confidence they needed to start well even if the Ducks wound up scoring the first goal.
Gustavsson, who is probably the most unassuming fellow nicknamed The Monster around, practically shrugged. He was more interested in how his newly-recovered groin muscles would hold up.
"Actually I was pretty lucky there," he said of the save. "We scored more goals which is important. It was a good chance to test my groin and it felt okay. I was a little bit nervous. But that's the way it should be."
The win has the victory-starved fans in Toronto hailing Gustavsson as David Miller's replacement as mayor. This was lost on the young goaltender, though, who clearly has a few things to learn about his fans.
"For the team it was big to get the first win," Gustavsson said. "Everybody can stop talking about it and we'll move on and try to get the next one."
Brunnstrom has no doubt Gustavsson will be able to handle all of the attention. When his goaltending led Farjestads to the Swedish league championship last season, Gustavsson got a healthy taste of hype.
"There was a big media hype for him because he was breaking records in the playoffs," Brunnstrom said. "There was also the interest from the NHL teams and he still played really good. That showed he can handle pressure. He's a calm person."
NOTES The Dallas Stars will be without centre Steve Ott for tonight's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was suspended yesterday for two games by the NHL for a low-bridge hit on St. Louis Blues defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo. While the hit itself may not have warranted such punishment, Ott, 26, is a repeat offender, having drawn two previous suspensions for obstreperous behaviour. "He needs to be that antagonizing guy for him to feel comfortable in the game," Stars head coach Marc Crawford said of Ott. "If you see him in practice he's like that, too. I don't think he wants to take unnecessary penalties and we talk to him when he does but he needs to play the game with an edge." … Stars defenceman Matt Niskanen will return from a head injury to play tonight. A decision on centre Mike Modano (ribs) will be made today. … Tomas Kaberle's five points against the Anaheim Ducks last Monday were the second-most by a Maple Leafs defenceman in a single game. Walter (Babe) Pratt holds the team record with six, set Jan. 8, 1944.
NEXT Wednesday, at Dallas Stars, 8 p.m. EDT
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