Leafs lay it on blue line

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:07 PM ET


 From the night they were broadsided into the Wachovia Center parking lot and out of the playoffs until the final warmup yesterday for the Ottawa Senators, the Maple Leafs vowed to build a better defence.

 The new model will roll off the production line and on to the blue line tonight at the Air Canada Centre, with three and possibly four new faces from the starting six employed during last year's first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

 While departing general manager Pat Quinn and new boss John Ferguson went a full year without landing the heavyweight physical presence deemed vital to any Stanley Cup plan, there's no arguing the Leafs have upgraded. Brian Leetch, Calle Johansson and Bryan Marchment could be re-joined by Ken Klee tonight, pending the status of the latter's shoulder injury.

 But new and old defencemen alike must succeed where last year's group failed, namely protecting goalie Ed Belfour and getting the puck out of the Leafs zone efficiently. While the Sens aren't the bullish Flyers, except when 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara parks his 250 pounds near the crease, their speed presents no better test for the new-look Leafs.

 THINK

 "You don't have to be a giant, you just have to think ahead of time," coach Quinn said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "It's about positioning, it's about blocking and passing, things we weren't doing well last year.

 "We played a good series last year, but we just got worn down. It was a tough physical battle and they had an advantage in size against our defence."

 The Leafs' new No. 1 pairing is future Hall of Famer Leetch and a more-mature Bryan McCabe. Then come the nefarious Marchment and Aki Berg. Johansson and long-serving Leaf Tomas Kaberle round out the six, with Berg, Kaberle or Marchment to be replaced by Klee.

 Klee has made a game attempt to rehab a suspected dislocated right shoulder, suffered March 18 against the Flyers. He was to see a club doctor yesterday in hopes of a definitive word. Both he and Quinn would prefer the issue be settled before tonight's pre-game warmup so the lineup isn't disrupted.

 "I'm sure (the doctor) will try to put me in some uncomfortable positions," Klee said. "But we want to make the right decisions so that when I come back, I'm back for good."

 Winger Darcy Tucker continues his slow recovery from an abdominal muscle pull, but ruled out rushing back.

 "If it's Game 1, 2 or 3, it doesn't matter, I just want to get back," he said.

 The Leafs departed Lakeshore with their traditional blue folders crammed with scouting info on the Sens. But don't expect them to veer from the style that gave them a 4-1-1 record in the season series. Ottawa goalie Patrick Lalime hasn't played since hurting his knee a week ago Saturday and the Leafs already have spooked him a few times.

 "He's a good goalie, but we can't pass up shots and maybe that's a flaw of ours," winger Tom Fitzgerald said. "We try to make the pretty plays when we should get pucks on him and crash the net for rebounds."

 McCabe looked forward to some battles with Chara.

 "You're not going to out-physical him, but hopefully we can get some pucks deep and wear him down," McCabe said.


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