O'Neill shouldering his share of load

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

It was hockey's cheesy version of a soap opera, one entitled As The O-Dog Turns.

When the aforementioned O-Dog -- a.k.a. Jeff O'Neill -- was made a healthy scratch for the Maple Leafs' final pair of exhibition games, there was a media frenzy concerning the future of the veteran forward.

Would he be released? Was he bitter?

Would he demand a trade?

Funny, but those issues no longer seem relevant whenever O 'Neill addresses the media these days. It's amazing how racking up four points in the past four games has put many of those concerns to rest.

"I was ready to play from Day 1," O 'Neill said yesterday.

"All of a sudden there was a (crap) storm midway through training camp. It's behind me now. I'm looking to be a contributor and leader on this team."

Having started the season opener against the Ottawa Senators only because Nik Antropov was injured, O'Neill has looked stronger with each passing game. He has a goal and two assists in the past two outings, an impressive feat considering those points came against Martin Brodeur and Miikka Kiprusoff, arguably the two top goaltenders in the NHL right now.

The recent success has come while playing on a line with youngsters Matt Stajan and Alexei Ponikarovsky. O'Neill and Stajan first developed chemistry late last season on a unit that also included Alex Steen.

HARD WORKER

"I like playing with Matty," O'Neill said. "He's a hard worker. He reminds me a little bit of playing with Ron Francis. He has a good shot and is great behind the net."

For coach Paul Maurice, seeing O 'Neill begin using his trademark quick release again could be a sign that O'Neill is recovering from his two shoulder surgeries in the past two years.

"He's in a little better shape," Maurice said when asked to explain O'Neill's recent improvement.

"I still think he's in his rehab process. And I don't think it was one injury. I think it was a series of them."


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