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Leafs Look To Rebound Against Islanders

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
The world continued to turn on Wednesday, at least in the tiny firmament in which all planets revolve around the Toronto Maple Leafs.

This despite Tuesday's 7-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes

That does not mean there won’t be low level seismic shakeups.

Balancing a need to turn the club around with the fact that the schedule is only four games lighter, the Leafs practiced some new line combinations and prepared to insert two or even three new faces into the lineup for Thursday’s home date with the New York Islanders.

Coach Paul Maurice will move hard-skating winger Alex Steen to the first line with captain Mats Sundin and Jason Blake and everyone involved understands the symbolism of the move.

“I think it’s more of a matter of sending a message to the whole group that the coaching staff does not accept the way we played,” said Sundin.

Sundin said observers will get a pretty good idea of what kind of team the Leafs have against the Islanders.

“Good teams are going to have bad nights and lose 5-1, whatever, that’s part of hockey. It’s how you respond. We had a good practice, but we have to come back with a strong game tomorrow. That’s what good teams do.”

The Leafs are expected to insert Wade Belak into the lineup for the first time this season. Maurice sees a Leafs’ team desperately in need for the energy Belak can bring.

“We’re going to see that in the ability to get in on the forecheck,” he said. “Our game is based on a certain amount of forechecking.”

Maurice is also expected to graft Simon Gamache into the lineup.

Gamache watched the Carolina game at home on television and wondered if he might get the call from the Marlies.

“You don’t want to guess (that you’re getting a phone call). You always hope for that call but it’s maybe not the best situation. Everyone is down but at the same time, I want to take my break and prove myself.”

Maurice has been bitterly disappointed in the play of the bottom six forwards in the depth chart. As a result, Kris Newbury and Bates Battaglia are the most likely to be bumped to the press box.

“We’ve got a number of players who have played on our bottom three or bottom six who have not had good starts,” said Maurice. “When he played in training camp he (Gamache) brought some energy, he brought some competitiveness and he brought some hands. We’re not getting that in all those guys so that’s why he’s here.”

Gamache practiced on the second line with Matt Stajan and the slumping Darcy Tucker.

Belak skated with John Pohl and Chad Kilger. The other Leaf forward combo was Nik Antropov with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Boyd Devereaux.

One statistic, Maurice said, underscored the need for change: 17 goals against in four games and much running around from the bottom of the lineup.

“They were on notice. It wasn’t something we let go for four games and say ‘you guys were fine but we’re just trying to shake things up.’ I told them we needed more out of them. The fact of the matter is the fourth line didn’t get off the bench to prove themselves but part of that is I didn’t feel confident enough putting them on the ice.”

The practice came to a halt when Alexei Ponikarovsky was injured in a collision with Chad Kilger. Ponikarovsky slammed his helmet and gloves to the ice and had to be helped off the ice with an injury to his left leg. Maurice said he believed the injury wasn’t serious.

“It’s not as bad as we feared on the ice, based on the language. We’ll know tomorrow. He may well play.”

The Leafs also called up Anton Stralman, their defenceman of the future but it isn’t known whether he will make his NHL debut.

Which brings us to the inevitable goaltending question. Vesa Toskala played admirably, despite the seven goals against. It should be interesting to see who Maurice turns to against the Islanders.

“We’ll see what happens,” said goalie Andrew Raycroft. “Obviously you want to get in there and play but at the same time there’s going to be an opportunity for both of us to play. It’s game four. We have 78 left. There’s lots of hockey to get in and lots of chances to play well.”

None better, for all concerned, than against the Islanders.
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