Leafs may finally have their second line

BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

Matt Stajan's linemates last night were Jason Blake and Alex Ponikarovsky. But, don't blink. The Maple Leafs centre goes through linemates the way Homer Simpson goes through donuts.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Ever since coach Paul Maurice stitched Stajan's latest line together, the Leafs have been resurgent -- three games, three wins. But it does take that sports theory about familiarty breeding success and blow it right out of the rink.

Stajan came into last night's game against the Buffalo Sabres having scored in his previous two games -- an awakening, of sorts, after 10 games without a goal.

Last night it was Blake, goalless in his previous six games, who scored on a lovely breakout to put away the Sabres in the third period.

Ponikarovsky? He scored on a slapshot that Ryan Miller is still looking for. It gives the big winger points in his past three games after going 12 without a goal.

Stajan didn't get on the scoresheet but drew a penalty in the opening minute that set up Toronto's first goal. He also hustled down the ice on Blake's goal, acting as the decoy on the shot that put Toronto up 4-2.

Perhaps, at long last, the Leafs' search for a second line that can consistently contribute offensively, is over.

"We had all four lines working well," said Alex Steen, part of an effective top unit with Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov which had the other two goals last night. "We've had periods this year where we've only had one of the lines producing, but there's no point looking back now ... the confidence is coming back into the group.

"When everyone is scoring, everyone is happy."

While Stajan and Steen had been together much of the season there also had been a persistent flux. Stajan played with John Pohl and Jiri Tlusty. For a long stretch Stajan and Steen teamed with Boyd Devereaux. Then Steen got bumped to the top line.

"It's like ping pong balls," Stajan said, laughing. "The last time I ever played on the same line the whole year was in junior. But it's different in junior. Up here, if you don't play well there's always somebody else who can take your place."

Stajan started the schedule with seven goals in the first 29 games and seemed on target for the first 20-goal season of his career. But both he and the team hit an offensive funk.

"We went into a lull where only a couple of guys were scoring. In this league you can't do that. You need contributions from more than one line," Stajan said. "There obviously are guys you seem to develop more chemistry with but ... you're just looking for a good fit."

With wins of 5-4 over Carolina, 3-2 over the Bruins in a shootout and 4-2 last night, the Leafs have, for the first time in 18 games, put together three consecutive outings with three or more goals.

SIZE AND SPEED

"I'm happy with Mats' and Stajan's lines," Maurice said of his latest juggling. "Other than Mats and Stajan, the lines are fairly similar. There's a big man (Ponikarovsky and Antropov) on each line and a guy that can skate (Steen and Blake)."

Blake's goal was speed- induced. He took the puck from Ales Kotalik with the Sabres pinching for the tying goal and raced down the wing. As Stajan went to the slot on the two-on-one, Blake ripped a shot past Miller on the short side.

"Great shot," Steen said, "and it gave us some breathing room."

So, while Ponikarovsky needs to show he can score consistently without the puck coming from someone named Mats, while Blake remains far off the goal pace the Leafs expected, and while Stajan's first 20-goal season is still iffy at best, together the three no longer look like they need a GPS device to find the net.

"Both Blakey and Pony bring the puck to the net well and, when that happens, there are usually loose pucks lying around," Stajan said. "I've been able to find some garbage (goals)."

So it is true: One man's garbage truly can be another man's treasure.


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