Ron Wilson took the 2010-11 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs out for a shakedown cruise Saturday night and the result was not bad.
Not bad, that is, until the opponent is taken into account. In this case it was the Detroit Red Wings' American Hockey League roster, with a few exceptions, who fell 4-2 at the Air Canada Centre in the Leafs' final pre-season game until they start shooting for real on Thursday.
Wilson, the Leafs' head coach, dressed the same lineup that is expected to open the season Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens with one exception. Mike Zigomanis stepped in for fourth-line centre Christian Hanson, who had a sore shoulder after taking a hit in Friday's game.
The win left the Leafs with a 5-3-1 pre-season record, which does not mean much. At least the Leafs had better hope it doesn't. A year ago, they went 6-3 in the pretend games and then won exactly one of their first 13 games as the ship went down with all hands by the end of the first month of the season.
"You just take jelling and chemistry out of this game," said Leaf winger Kris Versteeg, whose goal and assist show he is jelling with linemates Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. "You can't take this as a measuring stick [for the season]"
At this point, even taking Saturday's opposition into account, it is safe to say the Leafs should score more goals this season, although improving on last season's feeble offence is a fairly easy task. They will also be a more pugnacious group, if the frequency with which they mixed it up with the Red Wings is any indication.
The other obvious conclusion is that the goaltending, with J.S. Giguere around for a full season, and the defence should be better, although there was not a lot of evidence of that during the pre-season schedule. On Saturday, for example, Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin were not the picture of steady in the early going as someone named Cory Emmerton scored an easy power-play goal for the visitors.
Things picked up after that, however, with four consecutive goals through the first two periods with the top line of Kessel, Bozak and Versteeg producing the last three. The second line kicked things off shortly after Detroit's goal when Clarke MacArthur finished off a nice play by centre Mikhail Grabovski on a power play.
By the third period, the Leafs held a 4-1 lead on additional goals from Bozak, Versteeg and Tomas Kaberle, who was set up by Kessel and Versteeg.
"We're real excited right now because we're getting better as a team," said Leaf defenceman Luke Schenn, whose night was ended midway through the third period when he objected to a hit from Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader with a flurry of punches that brought a slew of penalties, including a major for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct.
However, there are many reasons to be cautious when it comes to the Leafs' chances of vaulting into playoff contention, aside from the fact they started this race from their 29th position on the starting grid, based on last season's finish.
Giguere put in two periods of ordinary work on Saturday, departing at the end of the second for rookie Jussi Rynnas. By the end of the third period, the Red Wings had outshot the Leafs 36-29, hardly a total to inspire confidence in the defence, with the immortal Tomas Tartar scoring on Rynnas.