Youth serve Leafs well

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

With three goals in the past two games, Matt Stajan qualifies as a captain of the Leafs' youth movement.

It also counts as a consolation prize that the bold late-season run he helped spark bodes well for the future.

But the 22-year-old Mississauga native didn't want to hear anything of it after last night's 5-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators that tasted too much like defeat.

"It's encouraging, but (next season) is a long way away," Stajan said after watching the Leafs' playoff hopes get buried by an overtime goal in Tampa Bay.

"I want it now. Everybody's going to have to remember the feeling and come back with an edge next year so we don't get ourselves in a situation like this."

The exuberance of the younger Leafs in the too little, too late stretch may be the most encouraging fallout from the failure of the 2005-2006 season.

A roster that creaked with aging veterans earlier was re-energized with younger players and helped the Leafs win eight of their past 10.

Besides Stajan, Alex Steen and Kyle Wellwood, callups from the AHL's Toronto Marlies were a force whenever they got promoted.

"The future looks good for this team," Leafs captain Mats Sundin said. "Nowadays, the way the game is played, you need guys who can skate and I think (Marlies players) have shown that.

"I am very impresed with the play of our younger players."

He wasn't the only one.

Sens coach Bryan Murray said the Leafs team that ran over his squad last night bore little resemblance to the one earlier in the season. Ottawa had won the seven previous encounters, including 8-0 and 8-2 blowouts.

"They're playing quicker, moving the puck better," Murray said. "They have some kids really skating, really focused and playing responsible."

On the latter point, perhaps no more so than in net.

Though at 29 he isn't exactly a youngster, goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin has sparkled down the stretch after moving his gear across town to take injured Ed Belfour's spot on the roster.

"They work hard down there," Aubin said of the Marlies. "They are well-taught and know what to do when they come here."

Veteran forward Darcy Tucker hopes it does mean a brighter future to ensure that springtime in Toronto includes playoff hockey.

"I guess when you take a step back, it is nice to see our young guys play as hard as they could down the stretch," Tucker said. "Hopefully we can take that to whatever we do in the future."


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