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After struggling in season opener, Maple Leafs' top line must be better

10/09/2014 01:28 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - When two of the Toronto Maple Leafs' best players in the season opener were Brandon Kozun and Stuart Percy — two rookies making their NHL debuts — it doesn't speak well of the team's big-money stars.

Those stars, most notably the top line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel, struggled against the Montreal Canadiens and must be better as the Leafs look ahead to facing the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers this weekend.

"I didn't think we had a very good night," Bozak said Thursday after an off-ice workout. "Things weren't really going our way. I don't think the three of us played very well. But it's only one game and I guess the good news is the only way to go is to get better."

The top line was on the ice for two goals against, including P.K. Subban's go-ahead one in the third period. On the shift leading to Subban's goal, three of the Leafs' best offensive players weren't at their best on defence.

Coach Randy Carlyle likes to match up his first line against the opponent's, but in this case Montreal's Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau dominated.

"They played a lot of the game in our zone," Carlyle said. "I think last night was a prime example of some of the things that (our top-line players) were trying to accomplish through the neutral ice and the turnovers that were created cost us momentum in the game."

Van Riemsdyk was less to blame in that department than Bozak and Kessel, who were each playing their first game in more than a week after missing time at the end of the pre-season with lower-body injuries.

Carlyle didn't want to excuse Bozak and Kessel for being injured.

"It's part of their responsibility to play to a higher level," he said. "There's things that they have to do, and it's not always on the ice. It could be off the ice, as far as keeping themselves (ready), and there's a program in place with our strength and conditioning guys that when you're injured, it doesn't mean you have days off."

Bozak said he might've been shaking off a bit of rust but didn't think it was that much different for everyone else as the tempo gets turned up at the start of the regular season.

The 28-year-old centre, who scored on the power play thanks to a nice pass from Percy, didn't think he and his linemates were nearly at their best in several areas of the game.

"I think in the second we just got outworked a little bit," Bozak said. "We lost some assignments, we had some turnovers and they just wanted it more than us for parts of the second and we can't have that."

Video study could help fix some things, and not just for the top line. Carlyle pointed to a lot of positives, like contributions from young players and "noticeable" special teams, but acknowledged that the Leafs need to adjust.

"We made some mistakes in the game structurally that, if we continue to make them, it'll be difficult for us to find ways to win," Carlyle said. "I call it puck support and turnovers. We didn't support the puck on our breakouts, we didn't support the puck through the neutral ice, and we turned the puck over and we gave them an opportunity to get their skating game going, their forecheck game, and they created more off their offensive-zone cycles."

Notes — The Leafs claimed 23-year-old winger Richard Panik off waivers from the Tampa Bay Lightning. To make room for the six-foot-one, 201-pounder with potential, the team sent wingers Josh Leivo and Troy Bodie to the AHL's Marlies. ... Defenceman Cody Franson, who missed the opener with a lingering knee injury, skated with other scratched players Thursday morning. Carlyle said it's a possibility that Franson could play Saturday night against Pittsburgh.

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