The Maple Leafs were running the last moments of a lighthearted practice, Tuesday, when it came time for Anton Stralman to score.
The 22-year-old Swede streaked down the ice in a breakaway drill, dropped the puck on his skate, kicked it back on his stick, deked Vesa Toskala and scored.
The speed and audacity of the goal elicited gasps. In a couple seconds, Stralman showed the strength of the horse the Leafs have so far struggled to harness.
If the game was played in penalty shots, Stralman might be a first all-star. Because it isn’t, Stralman played a dozen games in the minors before being called up three games ago.
Monday, Stralman played 20:43. With Tomas Kaberle weakened by illness, Stralman did time on both the power play and penalty kill units and finished even in the 2-0 loss. He moved the puck quickly and skated with confidence.
“He’s got to play like that,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “Because Kaby was ill he got more playing time and he took advantage of it.”
“I think that was absolutely my game of the year,” Stralman said. “I did what I was supposed to do,”
What Stralman is supposed to do, of course, is key a quick transition from offence to defence. He can skate the puck out of his zone but Wilson far prefers a pass on the sound notion that the puck moves faster than any player. He also has to be involved physically and use his speed to keep him in, not out, of plays in his own end.
That lesson was reinforced by a stint with the Marlies. Stralman’s numbers were lower case, one goal and two assists, but he figures he played at least 20-minutes a night.
The wakeup call that comes with the minor leagues isn’t just about buses instead of airplanes. A slightly lowered skill level means a player like Stralman sometime has to bring his shovel instead of his stick.
Stralman figured his demotion was about getting more ice time and rekindling his hunger to be in the NHL.
“It’s still fun. There’s a lot of skill and the game is fast-paced but in the end, it’s not where you want to be,” he said. “But when you get more ice time, it’s easier to play well and get more confidence in your game.”
The Leafs, meanwhile, continue to cope with injuries. Rookie winger Nikolai Kulemin
practiced and is expecting to play against Boston at the ACC on Wednesday. Kulemin had been sidelined with a broken foot and between the injury and a demotion to the Marlies, he hasn’t played for the Leafs for six games.Jeff Finger
practiced but the veteran defenceman has missed five games with an undisclosed injury. He will be out until after the all-star break as will forward Jeremy Williams who is out with a shoulder injury.
Defenceman Mike Van Ryn, expected back in the lineup in the Carolina game Monday, failed his neurological exam. Out since December 18, he will now wait until after the all-star break to return.
“I felt good but something in the tests showed I shouldn’t be playing,” said Van Ryn. “I’m trying to stay upbeat but it’s obviously frustrating. We’ll just have to take it day by day.”