Pony beginning to make his mark

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:57 AM ET

There is no one quite like Alexei Ponikarovsky, the last night's hero in the Maple Leafs' 4-3 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Ponikarovsky had a goal, a short-handed one no less, in regulation and another in the shootout.

He managed not to keel over when Leafs coach Pat Quinn shouted before the shootout: "Pony, you're up second after Mats."

'Up second after Mats' isn't Ponikarovsky's usual station in the Maple Leafs cosmos. He hasn't been called to take a penalty shot by the Leafs all season. Not even in exhibition, when teams were allotted shots after the buzzer regardless of the results.

It was becoming a bit of an issue to Ponikarovsky, who now has 10 goals, a modest career high.

"He used to kid us all the time because a lot of times we would go with the standard guys," Quinn said.

Thing is, the standard guys are out.

Eric Lindros, gone with a bad wrist. Jason Allison, a mangled finger. Alex Steen has a bad thumb. Throw in Nik Antropov out with his latest bout of knee woes and you get the idea.

That left the kid from the Ukraine they call the Pony.

Undaunted, Ponikarovsky took his turn, veered in on Buffalo goalie Martin Biron and went to the backhand.

The backhand is his move. He even referred to it as such in his interviews. It's cute as hell when he talks about his move.

It is nearly impossible not to like Alexei Ponikarovsky, who seems much younger than his 25 years and who has the virtue of always being seen to be working hard. You may not notice him, but you don't notice him dogging it.

The Pony became a regular for the first time in 2003-04. At about that time, he was also the bane of the call-in radio types who, if faced with big, hard-skating kid who was heavy on try and light on quit, would have rather had a Canadian, thanks.

It didn't help that Ponikarovsky had just one goal and six assists in a desultory stint in the Russian League during the lockout. Or that it seemed he would ever be much of a scorer and further evidence of Quinn's love affair with big, marginally talented players whose career arc often ended in the American League.

It started to change a bit for Ponikarovsky, in '03-'04.

That's when Quinn put he and Nik Antropov, another player whose development was moving at a glacial pace, on a line with Joe Nieuwendyk.

Instantly, the young players began taking strides.

"It was great experience playing with a guy like that," Ponikarovsky said.

"He taught me everything. Go hard. Don't look back. Do whatever you can to win."

If there is one thing that has helped Ponikarovsky hide his weaknesses, it's the willingness to listen. In Nieuwendyk, he had found the perfect mentor.

"Nieuwendyk did a lot for he and Nik, I believe," Quinn said. "He brought them along and pushed them. He was a good guy for them at the right time."

Ponikarovsky has been a different player this season. He leads the league in shorthanded goals. He delivers solid spadework along the boards and he makes Antropov, a sometimes frustrating jumble of talents, markedly better.

"You could see he felt differently about himself and he played that way," Quinn said.

Ponikarovsky, as Tie Domi was for years, is a player who somehow lifts a team. If Sundin scores, as he did effortlessly against Biron in the first penalty shot, it is expected. If Ponikarovsky does, it's a revelation.

The Leafs haven't lost a contest in which Ponikarovsky scored.

He has become one of those players -- a project who rarely disappoints and sometimes astounds.


Videos

Photos