Winning heals all wounds

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

The Toronto Maple Leafs have had so many wounded bodies the team charter should come with a big, red cross. There have been times when it seemed they were the only team in the NHL whose injury report took longer to dissect than their game film.

But head coach Paul Maurice's worst nightmare may yet turn into a sweet dream.

"Around Christmas (during the worst of the injury bug-a-boo), as coaches there's a tendency to wring your hands. Then you walk into the dressing room and realize for some of these guys it's the best Christmas of their lives. They're in the NHL and some of that enthusiasm lifts a team."

When the team departed Boston Thursday after dismantling the Bruins 10-2 there were 10 players on board who spent last season on bus trips to such swanky hockey hotspots as Bridgeport and Peoria. Kris Newbury scored his first NHL goal this week; less than two years ago he was playing in Pensacola where the only ice most locals are familiar with comes with a daquiri.

Ian White has gone from playing 12 NHL games last year to front-line duty on the Leafs' defence.

This is a team that features one line of Bates Battaglia, Boyd Devereux and John Pohl. Then there's Ben Ondrus, Wade Belak and Newbury. This is not the team Maurice, or Leafs' fans, expected. It has not been an easy adjustment as evidenced by a first half that saw the team drop out of a playoff spot, pronounced dead by the public and buried by an increasingly disenchanted media. Mats Sundin was out. Ditto Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood. Ouch!

But, with two wins against the Bruins this week all those new hands are gaining confidence. All those new parts are starting to mesh just a bit better with the older, mended ones and says Maurice it could make this a much deeper, better team in the long haul.

"Rarely do guys come up and get chances like this year. You don't usually come up and get 15 minutes (ice time). It's given guys a chance to look good."

And, it's also given them a chance to look bad, learn, and still wake up the next morning in the NHL. So there's Newbury, two goals into an NHL career, playing bigger than he looks. He's listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds but he must've been holding a couple bags of clay at the time. "As a kid I liked Eric Lindros. He's bigger but I admire the tough approach he had to the game. I try to play that way. Sometimes I run my mouth off and get in trouble."

But, hey, Tucker's made a career with an attitude like that.

In other less formal circles Newbury, Odrus and Belak were being dubbed the NOB Line. This is a good thing. Honest! In sports, when they give you a nickname, you've made it. It is a measure of acceptance. Maurice yesterday praised NOB Inc. for "their energy."

Meantime, the influx of fresh faces may be spurring players such as Matt Stajan. "It's true that as a player you don't feel quite as secure in your position when you see a young guy come in and play well in your position," Maurice said. So, there was the third-year Leaf player on Thursday snapping a 17-game drought with two goals. He hadn't scored since Nov. 24. "I was happy for him because I know it was weighing on him," said Maurice.

Stajan has lived the hard times. The experience, as the new Leafs are discovering, either breaks a player and turns them into gym teachers and bar owners -- or it makes them better. "Once you play a couple years you become confident that you are an NHL player but when you go through a drought you still play mind games with yourself," Stajan said.

"It's almost refreshing for our team sometimes to go on the road. There's a lot of tension here with the media. On the road, we have a lot of fun. That's just the way it is in Toronto."

And, this season, has been a little of both -- the worst of times, the best of times. "Everyone hits bumps in the road," White said. "Experience helps. The more you play; the more you learn. Fifty, a hundred games down the road, you feel it coming together as a player and as a team."


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