Peca's absence takes a toll

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:55 AM ET

If Michael Peca's value to the Maple Leafs wasn't fully appreciated prior to his devastating leg injury, it certainly is now.

The fact that the Leafs rank 28th in the NHL in penalty killing is a telling sign of just how much they miss Peca, who has been out of the lineup since fracturing his right leg during a collision with the Chicago Blackhawks' Jim Vandermeer on Dec. 22.

As painful as it has been to watch the Leafs perform without him, Peca, 32, saw improvement in the way his teammates handled shorthanded situations in their 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

"When things are not going your way during the penalty kill, you go out of your way to try to do things," Peca said yesterday. "You try to be the difference maker out there but killing penalties is a team thing, not an individual one.

"For the most part, the penalty killing against Montreal was pretty sound. There were some encouraging signs. The only goal they gave up went in off our own defenceman."

SERIOUS INJURY

Peca, one of the elite penalty killers in the league, has suffered serious injuries before, including the blowout of his knee after absorbing a hit from Toronto's Darcy Tucker during the 2002 Leaf-New York Islanders playoff series.

"But I've never been through it in the middle of the season like this time," Peca said. "What makes it so frustrating is I finally thought my game was coming around when I got hurt."

Peca has been doing a lot of upper-body work and even has been lightly riding the stationary bike, "although I can't put hardly any pressure on the leg." He uses crutches but is not wearing a cast.

He still is expected to be out until at least April.

"These types of injuries are hard to gauge, with the swelling and all," said Peca, who has another X-ray coming up in a week. "You have to wait for the bone to heal.

"In the meantime, I think the guys have been playing great, especially five-on-five."

General manager John Ferguson would like to find a way to bring back Peca next season, but the jury is still out.

"That was the understanding when I signed (for one year)," Peca said. "But we all have to wait and see with this injury."


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