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Stalberg gets top-line chance with Leafs

by John McGourty
PHILADELPHIA --  This is what an opportunity looks like in the NHL: With two Toronto Maple Leafs centers missing from the lineup due to injuries, big Swedish rookie Viktor Stalberg moved up from the fourth line to left wing on the first line in the Maple Leafs' 3-2 victory Tuesday over the Florida Panthers

Too often, players who have been successful scorers at lower levels get their "opportunity" playing on third and fourth lines, just as the Maple Leafs were doing with Stalberg in the dozen NHL games he'd played. Stalberg started the season with the Maple Leafs, but was sent to the AHL Marlies from Oct. 28-Dec. 18, where he had 8 goals and 21 points in 19 games.

"I think I can play whatever role I'm given," Stalberg said. "You're not going to complain here in your first year of professional hockey. I'm excited to get a chance to play there. It's a matter of taking advantage of the chance too. I can't just be happy being there. I have to make sure I keep playing my game and take advantage of the chance I'm getting."

When centers Wayne Primeau and Mikhail Grabovski were injured Saturday in Calgary, Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson inserted John Mitchell, returning from injury, and Rickard Wallin, recently a healthy scratch, at center and reshuffled his lines. He used the same combinations in practice Sunday and Monday and for the first 10 minutes against the Panthers.

Stalberg was slotted on the left side of center Matt Stajan and right wing Phil Kessel, who has been struggling lately, posting only 2 goals and 0 assists in his past 10 games. Overall, the changes worked as three lines contributed to the scoring.

Stalberg-Stajan-Kessel was the only line not to score, although Stajan had a power-play assist, but they had chances. Kessel had six shots and Stalberg had three. He had another blocked and another go wide.

"You can't complain about playing with those two guys, they're great players," Stalberg said. "Playing on that line, my role has to be to get in there and get pucks loose in the corners and make sure I get the puck in their hands. We had plenty of chances last night, but unfortunately weren't able to bury any of them. If we keep playing like that, a lot of goals will come, for sure.

"For the first couple of shifts with the two best players on the team in terms of talent, you're a little hesitant. As the game wore on, I thought I adapted and fit my role on that line."

He's excited about playing with Kessel, a 36-goal scorer last season who has 14 goals and 22 points in 31 games with the Maple Leafs.

"Usually, I'm a guy who likes to hold onto the puck a lot and he's that guy too, so we'll adapt and take the time to find lanes with him," Stalberg said. "We created some good chances. I don't know what the lines will be tonight (vs. the Flyers) but, hopefully, I'll get the chance to play with him here for some time.

"In terms of points and ice time, you're going to get a lot of more of those opportunities playing with these guys. They make a lot of plays and you just have to be ready for them."

Stalberg laughed when asked about practicing for two days with one set of lines and then quickly scrapping them.

"Playing this many games, at this point in the season, the drills we do aren't so much for lines as getting out, moving your legs and trying to zip the puck around for half an hour," Stalberg said. "We can't read too much into what the practice lines are right now. If (coach Wilson) thinks guys are playing well, he's going to give them ice time. That's how he coaches."

He said there were no instructions on how to play from Wilson, just a word to let him know his linemates.

"He's a man of pretty few words out there," Stalberg said. "The guys who play well, play a lot. It doesn't matter what line you start out on. If you're having a good night, you're going to play a lot, simple as that."
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