The Leafs are a team of real merit

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

It was only a three-game swing.

But the three games had to be played in four nights, and it was the longest trip of the season to this point.

To put it another way, it was an opportunity for this season's yet-to-be-defined Maple Leafs to embarrass themselves.

It didn't turn out that way.

Not even close to it.

It wasn't a resounding success in that they beat the two teams they should beat but lost to the team they would like to beat. Nevertheless, the trip had more positives than negatives.

One of the former was the continuing improvement of Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Written off by many at the start of the season as a waste of salary-cap room, Ponikarovsky easily is the Leafs' most improved player. And as he moves up the ladder, he is taking Nik Antropov with him.

The two are emerging as the Leafs' most-effective penalty-killing unit, with Antropov providing the reach and the hands while Ponikarovsky is providing the speed and the muscle.

And when you get right down to it, Ponikarovsky's hands aren't too bad, either. When he roofed that short-handed goal in Atlanta on Thursday night after Antropov sent him away on a breakaway, Ponikarovsky looked more like one of the league's elite scorers than a guy who was on the trading block a month ago.

On that same night, Mikael Tellqvist earned his first shutout and that, too, is a good sign for the Leafs. It has consistently been felt by many observers that Ed Belfour plays too many regular-season games. As a result, he isn't as sharp in the playoffs as in the earlier going.

It is not a view shared by Belfour, and in the past, coach Pat Quinn has not felt sufficiently confident in Belfour's understudy to order the veteran to take a break.

So far, Tellqvist has had only one shaky start out of six, and there aren't too many teams that can make that claim about their backup goaltender.

Most teams can't even make it about their starting goaltender.

The Leafs' team defence is starting to jell as well. In the three games, they allowed three goals.

Unless you're one of the guys who comes up with the National Hockey League's attendance figures, you can figure out that's a 1.00 average.

You won't have many problems at that rate.

The negatives?

They're do exist, but none is so serious that it can't be corrected.

Quinn feels his team turns the puck over too often, and although it may not matter against some teams, it certainly matters when you're playing the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that feasts on neutral-zone turnovers.

And the power play, of all things, is starting to become something of a concern as well.

It easily has been the Leafs' most dominant weapon this season, earning them points on nights that would otherwise have been bleak.

But lately, opposing teams have started to recognize the way it works and have been taking steps to counteract it.

On pure numbers, the power play didn't do badly on the road trip. It clicked on four occasions. But two of them came on five-on-three situations, which, for a good team should virtually be automatic.

Another came when a routine shot from the point hit a defender and changed course. The fourth came in the dying moments of the game against the Atlanta Thrashers when the result was already pre-determined.

When the Leafs badly needed a power-play goal, in the game against the Lightning, they couldn't get one.

No one expected the Leafs' power play would be able to maintain its torrid early pace, but even so, dark clouds are starting to appear on the horizon.

Teams are shutting down Bryan McCabe's shot, and Tomas Kaberle doesn't shoot much.

So the strategy will have to change a bit, which puts extra pressure on the forwards. If the points are shut down, then the passing lanes must open. But the forwards have to be able to convert those passes and, of late, they haven't been able to do so.

Still, when you can go on the road, win two out of three games and come back with only a few naggings concerns about problems that might develop, there's not much wrong in your world. 


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