January 29, 2004
(TORONTO) -- It's been a long road for Alexei Ponikarovsky.
From his native Kiev, Ukraine to Dynamo in Russia to Toronto to St. John's, Newfoundland and back again. That's been his path to the NHL -- and now he looks like he's finally going to plant some roots.
Ponikarovsky has been around the Maple Leafs since the 2000-01 season when as a rookie he played 22 games for the Blue and White before finishing the season in St.John's.
From then through to last season he was sent back-and-forth between the NHL and AHL but the potential the Maple Leafs saw in him when they selected the 6-4 winger in the 1998 draft may have finally arrived. It's a perfect time.
The Leafs have been hit with serious injuries to top-liners and have called on players like Ponikarovsky to step in and play key roles. He's met the challenge head on this year.
"I'm just happy to be here after three years of going up and down (between Toronto and St. John's)," Ponikarovsky says. "I'm enjoying every minute with the guys in the dressing room and stuff like that. It makes you feel good and you go and play hard."
| Ponikarovsky can play it tough or use the speed/skill game. |
(D. Sandford/Getty Images)
Pat Quinn has always liked players who are big, strong and most importantly can skate. Ponikarovsky fits that model, but even early on this season it seemed that he might again have to be sent to St. John's to find his game. However, when Alexander Mogilny was injured "Poni" stepped in and helped the Leafs go on their 16-game unbeaten streak.
While the Leafs sometimes like to overplay the puck, Quinn and his assistants prefer a more straightforward approach - something Ponikarovsky is now doing.
"We've been encouraging him to quit trying to be so pretty and put some (pucks) at the net and do simple things and maybe later on he gets some open ice to do something more fancy," Quinn says. "But you know we have some tendency to be too fancy sometimes and I really like it when our club does shoot it."
Although he doesn't pick up the points like Mats Sundin or Gary Roberts, Ponikarovsky is a dependable forward who was tied with Darcy Tucker for the team lead among forwards with +8. It's the little things like that that give players the realization that they can play in the NHL.
"I think sometimes when you're a young player, all you need is a little bit of confidence to get yourself going," says new linemate Joe Nieuwendyk.
Nieuwendyk has become a very integral part of the Leafs. A dependable two-way centre who plays the power play and a strong influence in the dressing room make Nieuwendyk one of the most important Leafs this year.
He has taken Matt Stajan under his wing as a roommate on the road. And now he's centering the 'Twin Towers' - Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov - forming a solid No. 2 line.
The line has been instrumental in two big wins over the past week. In Washington, Ponikarovsky scored two goals including the game winner, led the team with five shots and played 15:30 in a 3-2 victory. His two goals at Washington gave him seven in his NHL career, four of them coming against Olaf Kolzig at MCI Center.
Then against Montreal, Ponikarovsky, Antropov and Nieuwendyk combined on the pretty winning goal. Ponikarovsky using his size dug the puck out of the corner to Antropov who made a neat behind-the-back pass to Nieuwendyk who beat Jose Theodore.
Ponikarovsky also helped seal the deal in the third when Theodore stopped his shot, Mats Sundin put in the rebound for Ponikarovsky's first back-to-back two-point games of his NHL career. In that game only four other forwards had more ice time than Ponikarovsky's 15:40 on the night. It was his second highest total for a game this season.
Ponikarovsky has shown that he can play in the NHL and is showing confidence as the season progresses.
"I think the kid has great talent and when you have size and speed like him, it's crazy for him not to develop into being a force out there," says Nieuwendyk. "He's just realizing that now."