TORONTO (CP) -- Alexei Ponikarovsky is finally rewarding the Maple Leafs for their patience.
The big left-winger was drafted by Toronto in 1998 and is just now emerging as a producti ve contributor at the NHL level. He scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season in a 5-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday.
At this pace, Ponikarovsky will exceed 25 goals. His previous best was nine in 2003-2004, when the Ukraine product at long last earned a full-time job in the bigs.
"I was never disappointed,'' Ponikarovsky said of his gradual development. "I spent three years at St. John's and that was quality time.
"I was up and down all the time. I was learning. We had a pretty good team here and I think at that point in time I just couldn't make it.''
Some players need more time than others to develop. Some teams won't wait. The Leafs did. Now, at age 25, Ponikarovsky is an important player to them. He works hard at both ends of the ice.
He says his style incorporates "a little bit of everything.''
"You're always looking (to score) but you have to look back, too,'' he said. "You just can't forget about defence and go crazy on offence.''
He loves the crackdown on obstruction.
"Yeah, that helps a lot,'' he said. "Before that, you're skating and guys interfered with you and didn't let you get to the puck.
"Now it's much easier because they can't hook you to stop you. You just go around them.''
With his speed, he's breaking loose all the time. Coach Pat Quinn has been using six-foot-four Ponikarovsky with six-foot-six Nik Antropov and six-foot-three Jason Allison. The Big Line picked up seven points Saturday.
"They all hold the puck well,'' said Quinn. "It has the potential to be a strong unit for us.''
Talking about potential, rookie Alexander Steen has loads of it. The breakaway goal he scored 50 seconds into the game was a laser of a wrist shot to an extreme top corner of the net. He gets his shots off quickly, and he gets a lot of speed on them.
"I've never had a season where I've scored more goals than assists so this is a first,'' the 21-year-old forward said after scoring his eighth goal. "It's nice to be putting some pucks in the net.
"I've definitely been working extra on (the shot) the last couple of years. Now it's working for me.''
Meanwhile, Bryan McCabe continues to enjoy a Norris Trophy-type season. McCabe had a goal and two assists to raise his points total to 30. No other NHL blue-liner has as many.
"He's matured as a player and as a person,'' Quinn said of the burly six-foot-two defenceman. "He's getting the accolades he deserves.''
Quinn got McCabe from Chicago five years ago for Alexander Karpovtsev and a fourth-round draft pick. What a steal. Bring it up anytime it's suggested Mike Smith was a genius as a GM.
The Leafs, 12-7-2, have won four in a row because of vastly improved team defence and because they are staying out of the penalty box. They have allowed only one goal and four manpower advantages in each of their last three games.
"We had many meetings about trying to play better defensively and tighten up and not take as many penalties and it's paid off,'' said goaltender Ed Belfour. "It's showing up on the ice and that's great to see.''
Belfour has moved within two of tying Terry Sawchuk for second place on the all-time NHL goaltending wins list. Patrick Roy won 550, Sawchuk 447, and the 40-year-old native of Carman, Man., now has 445.
The Leafs are at full strength and healthy. They are at home Wednesday against slumping Boston, play in Carolina on Friday, and are at home Saturday against Montreal.