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Decisions, Decisions For Leafs

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

by John McCauley

February 23, 2004


(TORONTO) -- A big dilemma is coming for the Toronto Maple Leafs.


With Gary Roberts soon to be returning to his regular post on the left wing of Mats Sundin, who among the forward ranks is going to find themselves in the press box? It's sure to be a tough decision for head coach Pat Quinn.


Of the young bloods, none of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan or Nik Antropov deserves to be given a bird's eye view, although one of them is the easy choice for Quinn.

Ponikarovsky and Antropov are working well with Joe Nieuwendyk.

(Graig Abel Photography)


Ponikarovsky, Antropov and Nieuwendyk made up the Leafs' best line in a 2-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre. The chemistry the three have is evident, heck, they even have a cool nickname going for them "The Skyline".


Antropov scored the Leafs' lone goal shorthanded after Ponikarovsky tried to slide the puck through Kevin Weekes on a half breakaway. The big Russian followed and poked home the game's opening goal.


Just before that he hit the post on a beautiful feed from Ponikarovsky, who sent him the pass after a silky smooth fake shoot. Nieuwendyk started that rush and created space for the play by going to the net.


Nieuwendyk's veteran savvy and speed combine well with the pure hands of Antropov and the powerful puck pursuit of Ponikarovsky. It appears Quinn has no intention of breaking them up just to keep a veteran in the lineup.


"We're not pulling them (kids) out of the lineup yet," Quinn said. "You try to dress the best lineup every night. We're in a place where we're competing for something if we want first place. Rest is not a luxury right now.


"This is the time of year where you weigh youthful exuberance and a few mistakes against a veteran, who might be saving himself right now."


That leaves Stajan, who has been on a tear since returning from his All-Star experience with four goals and three assist in eight games. He was the game's first star in Saturday night's 5-4 win over the Canadiens. His plus-8 rating is fifth best on the team and he is continually getting better. At the start of the year players were manhandling the 19-year-old pup. Now he's cycling with confidence by using his speed and smarts.


Stajan centred the fourth line with Tie Domi and Tom Fitzgerald against the Hurricanes, proving yet again he can play with anybody.


Quinn's decision may come down to which veteran he believes needs some rest.


Alex Mogilny isn't going to play back-to-back games so he says, but we'll see later this week in Florida. Owen Nolan could probably use some rest after taking a low hit from Carolina defenceman Sean Hill and getting speared in the groin on Saturday. It isn't likely he'll want to considering how much time he missed with the eye injury.


Nieuwendyk is another possibility, but again too much time on the shelf already. Sundin not a chance. Ditto for Tucker, Reichel.


That leaves Domi and Fitzgerald as options to be healthy scratches. Fitzgerald is a valuable penalty killer for Quinn and is likely to get the nod over Domi. Fighting will become less and less a part of the game as we inch towards the playoffs and sitting him down for a game or two isn't out of the realm of possibility.


His normal spot along side Reichel and Tucker appears to have disappeared with the injury bug. Nolan has taken that spot. Mikael Renberg is also an option, but not too often do you go from the first line to riding the bike.


It's clear Toronto will either make room for all the forwards through a trade or risk losing assets like Craig Johnson and Nathan Perrott via the waiver wire.


Something tells me it's the right time of year to make a trade though.

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