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No Time To Waste For Mitchell, Leafs

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Bring it.

Right now.

That is the scenario facing Maple Leafs centre John Mitchell.

It also applies to the Leafs struggling power play and, with every glance at the standings, to the club as a whole.

The Leafs play the Florida Panthers tonight at Air Canada Centre and losses in Edmonton and Calgary have left the club eight points back of the Montreal Canadiens, holders, at least for now, of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Toronto has lost centres Wayne Primeau and Mikhail Grabovski to injury. They are entering a brutal string of four games in five nights including Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Then it’s off to Buffalo before home games against Pittsburgh, Carolina and the Flyers again.

Wait, it gets better. The Leafs then embark on their longest road trip, a five-gamer.

So if anyone has some heroics they would like to contribute, now would be a good time.

Which brings us back to Mitchell, whose return couldn’t be better timed?

Mitchell missed 20 games with a knee injury and will be in the lineup tonight between Alexei Ponikarovsky and Niklas Hagman. The pair have two goals between them in the last 20 games. Mitchell had two goals in the 22 he played before being hurt. That’s a whole lot of cold.

Mitchell is just trying to slide back into the action.

“I’m just going to try to keep it real simple. Use my wingers, use my d-men,” he said. “When you have an opportunity to shoot at the net I will.”

Mitchell should not expect to be lowered gently into the fray.

“He’s got to come in full bore,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.

“We don’t have the luxury of limiting. I have got really three centremen in the lineup because Jamal Mayers is playing centre on the fourth line. If he can’t play four games in five nights then we probably would be putting some people on IR (injured reserve) and get somebody up to replace him.”

The Leafs power play, meanwhile, has kacked out. Since scoring a couple of power play goals in mid December against Washington, the Leafs power play has converted at about nine per cent.

“I don’t think we’ve won enough battles down low to recover loose pucks,” Wilson said. “We get in and get one chance and that’s it for sustained pressure in the other team’s end. And again, we’ve got to find ways to get traffic in front of the net.”

The Leafs will be without Mike Komisarek, out with what Wilson describes as an upper body injury for the Florida and Philadelphia games.

Jonas Gustavsson will get the start in goal after a solid performance in the 3-1 loss to Calgary. Rookie defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, the unfortunate recipient of the ubiquitous upper body injury on November 30 isn’t back for at least another week.

Meanwhile, Phil Kessel’s cold streak has dragged on. Despite 34 shots in his last eight games, he has just one goal. Kessel shrugs the results off as the hot and cold returns of a goal scorer but Wilson has pointed the finger at centre Matt Stajan.

“I think Staj has to play a lot better in terms of setting him up and finishing off opportunities that Phil has created, Wilson said. “Kuli (Nikolai Kulemin) has done a great job on the forecheck, but he sometimes struggles scoring. I’d like all three of those guys to contribute more.”

The injuries will recreate plenty of shuffling in the bottom two lines. Jason Blake will play with Rickard Wallin and Lee Stempniak. Jamal Mayers will centre Viktor Stalberg and Colton Orr on the fourth unit.

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