Stajan picks up his game at right time

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Matt Stajan thinks he is playing the best hockey of his young NHL career and Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn has an idea why.

"To me he is making that challenge to himself to be a guy when we get the puck who can move and hold the puck and make some plays," Quinn said. "Before, he would be comfortable to put the puck safe, give it up and get to the defensive position.

"Mentally, he has made up his mind he can do those other things. If he is going to be a strong player in this game, he has to continue to challenge himself to be that two-way sort of guy. That is the difference right now."

Stajan has demonstrated that he has a fairly good grasp on the defensive nuances of the game, and has become a scoring threat when the Leafs are killing penalties. But with a return to his natural position of centre a few weeks ago and an increase in ice time -- one positive, perhaps, of Jason Allison going down with a season-ending hand injury -- Stajan gained the confidence to exploit some of the offensive skills that made him an effective two-way player when he was with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League.

Last night marked Stajan's first overtime goal in the NHL; a month or so ago, there's little chance he would have been given an opportunity by Quinn to play in overtime.

Though Darcy Tucker helped Stajan score the winner last night, the line of Stajan between Alex Steen and Jeff O'Neill has been a real bonus for the Leafs during their recent good streak.

Stajan is thrilled he has reached his 14-goal total of his rookie season, but he won't forget about his play without the puck.

"A lot of guys can score," the 22-year-old said. "It's the guys who can play defence who stick around for a long time. I pride my games on that. I think I still have a lot of work to do, put some muscle on. At the same time I like to think I am pretty comfortable right now."

Stajan has three games left in the regular season to prove he can be handed a bigger role next year, as do the Leafs' other young players. But they've impressed some of the hardened veterans to this point.

"We do need our young guys to step up and play well," Darcy Tucker said.

"If we are going to make the playoffs, we can't rely on one or two lines. For us to do that, we need young guys to step up. There is a lot of pressure on them to do that and they are responding."


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