by John McCauley
When you envision forward line combos you think of threesomes, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are proving that success can also be found with dynamic duos.
Most would agree -- there's always somebody that doesn't -- the Leafs are playing much better defensively and that has enabled them to get back in the playoff hunt. Now there's definitely still some issues, road wins are few and far between and the power play has gone missing, but 5-on-5 it's come full circle.
At least part of the improvement stems from a couple solidiers in the trenches helping their Generals focus on putting the puck across the goal line.
| Fitzgerald isn't afraid of the physical play. |
Graig Abel Photography
A few weeks ago Tom Fitzgerald found himself on the top line with Mats Sundin and Mikael Renberg. No one was more surprised than he about the promotion and there was a little heat from the boys in the room, but now he's fit into the role without further snickering.
Fitzy isn't there to put the puck in the net or even set up the Captain. He's simply a defensive insurance policy that has paid off numerous times.
Similarly Paul Healey plays the same role for Alex Mogilny and Nik Antropov. The 27-year-old does all the little things that make life easier for his more skilled linemates.
So therein lies the philosophy for Pat Quinn's first and second lines. Two guys that can score matched with a guy that works hard and rarely makes a defensive miscue. So far it seems to be working, eight straight wins at home is a testament to that, though changes may be on the horizon after a 1-0 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers.
"My feeling was, and it was an effort to get balance as well, but let's take a defensive oriented sort of guy and put him with a couple of guys that can score and create," Quinn said. "Really that's not anything new. (Glen)Sather did it with his guys in Edmonton. You remember Gretzky and Kurri but a lot of times you had to think about who else they played with."
More importantly, how has the change effected the Leafs' play?
| Healey earns every minute he gets with the Leafs. |
Graig Abel Photography
"I think what it did was give emphasis (to the defensive game). I think before we looked over and saw three guys with pretty good mechanical skills and we were thinking we're going to be able to pass it around, we're going to be finesse, we're going to be pretty and we weren't."
You won't find the offensive guys complaining about having Fitzgerald or Healey on their lines either. You'd think that would be the case since it makes sense that adding another scorer would give more of a chance at success, but it just isn't so.
"I love playing with (Fitzgerald)," Renberg said. "He's a very solid player and he's always there to support you. Mats and me know that when we go on the forecheck, he's always going to be the third-man high, we don't even have to worry about that, it's great."
Renberg even notices the advantage of having Healey with the second unit.
"Paul is also working extremely hard for those guys. Nik and Alex are so skilled and it makes Paul a perfect fit for them because he works along the boards and he's tough."
So far the foot soldiers have provided the rest of their line with a better chance at success. And the more invisible they become, the more results the team will be seeing.