Pony back in saddle

Toronto Maple Leafs' Alexei Ponikarovsky restrings his shoulder pads as he practises yesterday for...

Toronto Maple Leafs' Alexei Ponikarovsky restrings his shoulder pads as he practises yesterday for the first time in three weeks. (Toronto Sun/Michael Peake)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

No cavalry is coming over the hill for the beleaguered Maple Leafs, but at least there is a Pony approaching.

With worrisome, lingering injuries to Kyle Wellwood (who didn't skate long at Lakeshore Lions Arena yesterday) and Darcy Tucker (not on the ice at all), the Leafs had a glimmer of good news when Alexei Ponikarovsky worked his way through his first contact drills after separating his left shoulder three weeks ago.

Ponikarovsky paused to shake his arm a few times yesterday.

"You're going to have some weird feelings in it, but it has nothing to do with (pain)," the big right winger said. "You do more and more every day, trying to progress."

He has good reason for wanting to kick his recovery into high gear. His first-line role with Mats Sundin has been challenged by Jeff O'Neill and Alex Steen, a full troika from the AHL Marlies has joined the Leafs in his absence and three other forwards -- Wellwood, Tucker and Nik Antropov -- eventually will return.

"(But) I don't want to rush it too much," Ponikarovsky said. "It can get injured again and I'd be out longer. That's my first priority, to fix the shoulder, then to play."

Maurice could have him back by Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks.

"I think we'll see Ponikarovsky (return) and then Tucker (cracked foot), and that's just going out on a limb," coach Paul Maurice said. "That's the (projected) order, but in terms of days, I can't say yet."

Maurice tried to play down the continuing delay in getting Wellwood back, after Saturday's target return date against the Buffalo Sabres was delayed. Wellwood has suffered from a groin/hip flexor injury that might require intervention from a specialist.

"We haven't seen a linear progression," Maurice said. "It certainly feels like he has been gone a long time, but not in relation to those with that kind of injury."

Antropov, fighting through a long-term high ankle sprain, lasted longer than Wellwood yesterday in a cordoned off area of the rink.

"This is one of those sprains you hope are three or four weeks, but never are," Maurice said. "They're always in the six-to-eight range. He's back on the ice and skating comfortably, but he has got to put enough daily stress on it that he feels comfortable. Once he is at the point where he's not thinking about the pain, then we can say he's five or six days away."

Forward Erik Westrum was returned to the Marlies on Sunday, but could be brought back tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes -- if Maurice decides not to use Brendan Bell as a seventh defenceman.

Maurice continues to salute Marlies coach Greg Gilbert and assistants Joe Paterson and Jim Hughes for faithfully mirroring the Leafs' system, thus supplying forecheck-friendly players throughout the injury crisis.

With almost all their best players with the Leafs, the Marlies have been getting pounded and sit fifth in the AHL's Northern Division.

"We really haven't had a consistent lineup since Day One, but that's the nature of the beast," Gilbert said. "As long as our guys do the job and fill the hole for the big club, that's what it's all about.

"It's not just the coaching staff that has helped. The players themselves have bought in to what we're trying to teach them. It gives the players that much more confidence and a calmness when they go into the situation in Toronto."


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