Young defencemen making most of chances

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

Darcy Tucker thinks the young Maple Leafs' defencemen pressed into service by a glut of injuries can cut the cord with the Marlies.

Remarking on their progress so far under adverse circumstances, the veteran Leafs winger didn't want Jay Harrison, Andy Wozniewski and Staffan Kronwall to feel coddled any longer. If Ken Klee, Aki Berg and Carlo Colaiacovo are not coming back until after the Olympic break as feared, Tucker reasoned the kids should not be afraid to assert themselves. They'll get at least three more games this week before the National Hockey League schedule is interrupted.

"You have to do it sometime if you want to be an NHL player," Tucker said after the three did well again in Saturday's 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils. "There's no better time than being in a playoff chase with one of the most famous franchises in the league.

"They're learning a lot and the older guys are helping them out as much as possible."

Wozniewski and Harrison played a whopping 23 and 22 minutes respectively, against the Devils, while Kronwall played nearly 12. They were a combined plus-3, without a shot on goal, but were credited with seven of the club's 28 hits and eight of 24 blocked shots, five by big Wozniewski.

But such feats are more noteworthy given the injuries and the pervading doom and gloom around town regarding Toronto's playoff chances.

"It's a pressure situation," coach Pat Quinn said. "They could easily be tight and afraid, but they've handled it really well.

"I think it's a great mental lesson. You can technically practice and go through all of the system work and look for execution. But to actually do it when you have the kind of pressure we've had on our team for awhile -- and do it as well as those three young men are -- it's a great pressure cooker and can only help them be better."

Quinn has defied critics who say he exposes the kids to too many harrowing situations, such as defending leads late in the game. While there have been such hiccups, Wozniewski was on the ice Saturday when the Devils pulled Martin Brodeur in the final minute. Wozniewski was rewarded with his first NHL point in seven games, an assist on Chad Kilger's empty-netter.


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