Baptism by fire

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

TAMPA -- Jay Harrison has learned a valuable lesson in his brief three-game stint in the NHL.

Opponents don't like it when you jam your glove in their face and start rubbing it back and forth, no matter which league you are playing in.

Harrison's willingness to get under the skin of enemy players is a prime example of the on-the-job training the kiddie corps on the Maple Leafs blue line have been undertaking.

It's not like coach Pat Quinn had a choice in the matter. His only option has been to throw rookies Harrison,Staffan Kronwall and Andy Wozniewski out for a regular shift and watch them undergo baptism by fire.

Here's Quinn's dilemma.

With Aki Berg (ribs), Carlo Colaiacovo (concussion) and Alexander Khavanov (foot) hurting, the Leafs defence has been tissue-paper thin.

Khavanov likely will miss significant time with a suspected fracture of the left foot, an injury that caused him to wear a soft cast Tuesday. General manager John Ferguson could not offer an update on the ailment yesterday, but there is speculation that Khavanov will be out weeks as opposed to days.

And unless Ferguson can pull the trigger on a deal that brings in some blue-line help, a portion of the team's fate will be determined by these three youngsters who spent much of this season with the American Hockey League's Marlies.

"Considering that they're all young men still trying to learn their craft they've done fairly well," Quinn said. "We're going to play them. There are no alternatives. And they are going to play in all situations, which they have done.

"They have a great opportunity to learn at this level. And learn by playing, not just by practice."

Three NHL freshmen with styles as different as their backgrounds. Wozniewski, 25, grew up in Illinois, Kronwall, 23, in Sweden and Harrison, 23, in Oshawa.

"Jay's a physical guy out there. Woz is a big guy who takes up a lot of space and Kronner's a guy who can wheel the puck and sees the ice," defenceman Bryan McCabe said. "It's a good mix. They've all stepped in and played well for us."

Harrison has been especially impressive. It's no coincidence the Leafs have secured points in all three games he has played.

It has been a long time coming for Harrison, who has spent almost five years on the farm since being made the 82nd overall pick of the 2001 entry draft.

"To be honest it has been a difficult grind," Harrison said. "And just not for me. For everyone. Spots have been few and far between especially on the back end. If you look the past three years, there have been very few defencemen called because the team is so deep. So I don't think there ever was a sense of being overlooked."

Harrison credits Marlies coach Paul Maurice and his assistants for helping him take the next step to the NHL.

"They gave me opportunities," Harrison said. "Lots of ice (time) has done a boat load for my confidence."


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