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Big Test For Leafs Against High Powered Sharks

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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As they prepare for tonight’s game with the San Sharks, the Maple Leafs are hoping to demonstrate the changes you can see and the ones you can’t.

Certainly, there is no  mistaking  a lineup that is on average a year younger. Dion  Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and most of all J-Sebastien Giguere have delivered instant results for a Leafs team still stuck in last place in the East.

The Leafs have played three excellent games since the trade and stand 2-1. The loss is the sticking point, a soul-destroying performance in New Jersey in which the Leafs surrendered three goals in the final 3:04 to lose 4-3.

So less than 24 hours after their  second collapse in four games (they blew a three-goal lead against Vancouver, don’t forget) the Leafs smothered the Senators 5-0 on Saturday night.

So what gives?

Depends on who you ask.

“We said before the start of the game on Saturday  it’s a tough lesson to learn,” said Luke Schenn, a two-goal scorer on Saturday. “We had a lead going into Saturday into the third period. We figured we learned our lesson that you have to play the entire 60 minutes.”

“The big picture is we’re playing better hockey,” said Rickard Wallin who earned his first Leafs goal Friday in Jersey. “We talked about it all of last game. Sixty minutes.”

Giguere, himself a Stanley Cup winner in Anaheim, says the toughness necessary to maintain a lead can only be gained one way.

“You have to learn how to win and there are reasons why you have teams in this league who win every year,” he said. “The San Joses, the elite teams, they win every year because they have learned. They went through the pain of losing, they went through the pain of giving up leads. Eventually they found a way to win and they have held on to that.”

Leafs coach Ron Wilson disputed the fact that his team collapsed in New Jersey and wasn’t shocked that they bounced back.

“The last three minutes (in Jersey) they had a couple of scoring chances and they all went in,” Wilson said. “They weren’t great scoring chances and we didn’t get a save. It always looks bad but I thought we played really well, in spite of what happened at the end.”

Giguere hasn’t given up a goal in two games but that may well change against the potent Sharks.  San Jose are a superb 19-6-2 on the road and with Patrick Marleau scoring 38 goals and Dany Heatley good for 32 more, the Sharks are the number one team in the Western Conference.

Meanwhile, the arrival of Dion Phaneuf has bit heavily into Tomas Kaberle’s playing time.

Kaberle, a staple of the trade rumour circuit, is averaging 22:43 this year but since the trade, his average ice time has slipped to just over 17 minutes.

Expect to see Giguere face Evgeni  Nabokov tonight.

The Leafs line combination figures to be Tyler Bozak with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Phil Kessel, Christian Hanson centering John Mitchell and Lee Stempniak, Wallin with Kulemin and Fredrik Sjostrom and callup Viktor Stalberg skating on the fourth unit with Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau.

Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin have  emerged as the club’s  go-to unit with Kaberle paired with Carl Gunnersson and Luke Schenn roving between pairings but starting the game with Garnet Exelby.
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