Winners of two straight, the Maple Leafs will bring no changes to the lineup tonight when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m., TSN, Leafs TV Interactive.
That doesn’t mean there are no stories.
One of the best is Niklas Hagman, a free agent-signee coming off a career-high 27 goals in Dallas.
So far, Hagman has just two goals and his linemates, Nikolai Kulemin
and Mikhail Grabovski
have only delivered three more between them.
But Hagman is showcasing the best of Finnish hockey. He is impeccable defensively; he skates beautifully, pressures the puck and is available for any kind of special teams work.
Three own goals from teammates have dragged Hagman’s plus/minus to zero but Hagman’s energetic play has made more room for his linemates and fortified the unit’s defensive conscience.
“In Finland we may not be that flashy but we get the job done. Jiri Lehtinen, Olli Jokinen, Saku Koivu aren’t the flashiest players but we tend to know that to have success internationally, you have to play well in both ends.”
“I feel pretty good about my season. Point-wise I could have done better. Our line, we’ve had three goals against five on five and they’ve all been own goals. That’s something you don’t see every day.”
“He’s playing a lot more energetically than I’ve ever seen him play,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who shared the Western Conference with Hagman while coaching the San Jose Sharks.
“I think he’s pretty excited to play a more offensive-minded role. He has basically been a third-or fourth liner. Last year on the third line he scored 27 goals. He views this as a chance to play with pretty skilled guys and teach them how to play the right way.”
One area where the Leafs are profiting under Wilson is the penalty kill. The Leafs, perennially among the league leaders in power play opportunities surrendered, sit seventh.
“We haven’t been defending as much as we have as we had in the past.” said forward Alex Steen. “We’re a quick team. But the main thing is we’ve been on the right side of the puck. We’ve played a smarter game.”
Rookie John Mitchell, for one, will be watching every step taken by Tampa Bay Star Vincent Lecavalier.
“I’m looking forward to being able to see how he plays every shift instead of watching television and only watching him score on the highlights.”
The Lightning are a poor 1-3-3 despite wholesale off-season chances. Ryan Malone, signed away from the Pittsburgh Penguins has only scored one and defenceman Andrej Meszaros, acquired from Ottawa, is minus two. First overall pick Steven Stamkos is pointless and playing just over 11 minutes a game. The Leafs haven’t given up a power play goal in three games and have killed off 17 of the last 19 manpower deficits.