TORONTO - Stephane Robidas knows from his 885 career games spanning 14 seasons what it's like to play in the NHL. But that doesn't mean the new Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman is any less excited about playing the Montreal Canadiens on opening night.
"Let's put it this way: This date's been marked on my calendar for a long time," Robidas said.
It'll be the first game in a Toronto uniform for Robidas and the first of a lot of other things Wednesday night. As the Brendan Shanahan era begins in earnest, the new-look Leafs will have just 10 players in their lineup who were there when last season's collapse began.
"We've added almost 10 new guys so you'd expect us to play a little differently and those guys to add something," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "We've made some changes to certain areas of how we play, so I think everyone is comfortable with that."
Along with Robidas, it'll be the first game with the Leafs for veterans Roman Polak, Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik. The 37-year-old Robidas could be the most important free-agent addition, given that he's expected to be a top-pairing defenceman with captain Dion Phaneuf.
"I want to be the same player as I was before," Robidas said. "I'm not the saviour, I'm not going to change this whole organization upside-down. We've made a few good changes over the summer, there's a lot of new faces. Younger guys gained experience over the last few years. It's a team game and I want to be a piece of that puzzle."
Perhaps the biggest piece is goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who is set to make his first opening-night start since his NHL debut. That came in 2007 at the age of 19 for the Los Angeles Kings in London, England.
"It's been a while," said Bernier, whose most recent opening-night nod came in the AHL in 2008. "You've got to control your emotion, not too high, not too low."
In 2007, Bernier played just four games and was returned to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He'll play many more this season as the primary starter, even as coach Randy Carlyle continues to call Bernier and James Reimer his 1A and 1B goalies.
In front of Bernier, the Leafs' blue-line features a 21-year-old making his NHL debut in Stuart Percy. With Cody Franson still nursing a knee injury and targeting a potential Saturday return against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Percy is in despite being sent to the minors Tuesday as part of a salary-cap manoeuvre.
"He's done more than we anticipated," general manager Dave Nonis said of Percy. "We thought that he would be an option for us 40 games into the season, that maybe another half year with the Marlies before he'd be a guy that was capable of playing. But yeah, he's put himself firmly in the picture, no question about it."
Percy was a surprise but the other Leafs player making his NHL debut against the Canadiens came out of nowhere. Five-foot-eight winger Brandon Kozun made it impossible for management and coaches not to keep him around, and he's expected to skate on the second line with Lupul and centre Nazem Kadri.
"It's crazy," Kozun said. "It will probably sink in more as we get closer to that game time."
Carlyle, who couldn't recall much about his NHL debut in the 1976-'77 season other than it coming at Maple Leaf Gardens, has some very basic advice for Percy and Kozun.
"My advice to them has always been the same is do what you do best," he said. "Don't try to do anything special. Things will happen at a quicker pace. Just keep it simple. We have that old K.I.S.S. method: keep it simple, stupid."
Even for the experienced guys, opening night carries its share of butterflies. Lupul figured even in his ninth season he'd have some trouble sleeping.
"I said to my friends last night: I just can't wait," Lupul said. "It feels like your first game again. Especially this matchup, Toronto-Montreal, opening night of the season in our building, it's pretty cool."
The nerves extend to Carlyle, too, but for different reasons. He said the Leafs have accepted the pressure on them this season, and he's a big part of that.
"You're always nervous and you're always looking: 'Did we do enough of this? Did we do enough of that? Will we play to the level we're capable of?'" Carlyle said. "You're always looking and you're always (wondering): 'Did you do enough? Could we have done more? Once the games get going, you kind of lose that and then you move on to the next one's the most important one."
The first "most important one" is the sixth-straight opening-night game between the Leafs and Habs and 725th all-time regular-season meeting between the teams.
"The Toronto-Montreal matchup is one that the networks have dreamt up ever since I've been here," Carlyle said. "It's a great way to kick off the season with two established Original Six franchises that have been around for a long time."
Lupul sees Montreal as something of a measuring stick because of the Habs' run to the Eastern Conference final. But he also thinks the Leafs seeing them that time of year would do wonders for the rivalry.
"Ideally it would be pretty cool to have a playoff series one of these years," he said. "The rivalry will always be there because it's Toronto-Montreal and it's been that way for 100 years, but I think for it to take (it) to the next level probably a playoff series would be pretty special for everyone in Canada."
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