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Long Road Back For Lupul

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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As he fought for his career and his health, one thought sustained Joffrey Lupul.

He did not want to be That Guy. He had known That Guy, all the way up a hockey ladder that brought him to the NHL and stints beside superstars Sergei Fedorov and Mike Richards.

“I didn’t want to be That Guy, the good up and coming player who gets an injury and then just sort of fades away,” he said.

With hopes for the  2010-2011 campaign dissipating, reckoning the good as well as the bad of the season will soon begin.

The bad is easy enough to find, a terrible first half, special teams. The good is even easier, the play of James Reimer and Dion Phaneuf, the spectacular performance of the second line, the emergence of rookie Keith Aulie and, the sleeper on the list, the comeback of Joffrey Lupul.

Six months ago, Lupul’s career wasn’t just fading away, his body was as well. While a member of the Anaheim Ducks, he contracted an infection during a back surgery and missed last season’s final 52 games. The infection necessitated a second operation and 16 weeks with an intravenous antibiotic drip. Lupul was weak. He  dropped almost 25 pounds under his playing weight and did not return to the ice until November. Parents and friends took turns nursing him and sometimes he was too weak to walk across the street.

When the Leafs traded Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim in February for Lupul, it was widely believed Toronto was absorbing a salary dump for the chance to land-highly coveted defenceman Jake Gardiner. Lupul goes into the final year of a $4.25 million deal next season.

Instead, coach Ron Wilson has used the 27-year-old Lupul as a first-line handyman, the kind of player who can do everything, work in the corners, retreat defensively, score, hit and in general free up uber gunner Phil Kessel.

“He’s really strong on the boards and he’s been a little bit better playmaker for Phil,” Wilson said. “We needed a big guy and he’s fit in really well. I think in general he is starting to play like he can when he is in game shape.”

It has been a remarkable renaissance, from a forgotten figure with the Ducks to a first-liner in Toronto. There is no question he can score. Lupul has enjoyed 28, 25 and 20 goal-seasons. With the Leafs shopping for a first-line centre to put between Lupul and Kessel, his most productive seasons could be ahead of him.

“I’ve scored eight goals and even looking at the games where I didn’t score I had some tough luck around the net,” Lupul said. “I think if I play with those guys and get through the season without any major injuries I can break that 30-goal mark.” With eight goals and eight assists in 25 games, Lupul is on pace for a 26-goal, 52-point season based on 82 games. With a full-off season to train and prepare for training camp, Lupul insists there is still much to bring, especially when he considers the last 12 months.

“I didn’t know when I would be playing,” he said of his convalescence. “I didn’t know if I would be playing ever. Hopefully, 10 years from now, that year will be an afterthought.”

The Rangers defeated the Bruins Monday which means that the Leafs can not catch them. The Leafs play Washington Tuesday at Air Canada Centre. At the same time, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be in Buffalo. If the Sabres get one point from their last three games the Leafs will be eliminated. Should Buffalo lose the last three games of the season and the Leafs win all three of their last games, the Leafs would advance on a tiebreaker.

“We didn’t get much help from the scoreboard on Sunday,” said Leafs goalie James Reimer, “but it’s not unknown for teams to lose three games in a row. The important thing is I'm proud of what we’re doing as a team, proud of what we’re going to do this week.”
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