Leafs hope Wellwood's return will breathe new life

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 12:28 PM ET

So, that's what a saviour looks like.

Kyle Wellwood, the Maple Leafs' slick, diminutive centre-forward returns to the lineup tonight. All he has to do is resurrect a power play from the dead, re-energize the team's offence and live up to higher expectations than Moses facing a seawall.

When last seen in a Maple Leafs uniform (the team was not yet fighting for its playoff life), Wellwood was on pace for a 20-goal season and he was the quarterback of the fifth-ranked power play in the league.

Not to mention that teamed with Mats Sundin, he was helping make Darcy Tucker a multi-million dollar, goal-scoring machine.

Not bad for a guy just in his second year in the NHL.

Not too shabby for a guy who was too small for the American Hockey League.

Too good to be true? Yep. On Dec. 19 he thought he'd pulled his groin. More than a month later he had a hernia operation.

Toronto has been fighting to keep its head above the playoff cutoff ever since.

"He's pretty much the key element of the power play. He's got the patience with the puck."

He's got great poise out there and he can make unbelievable plays," Ian White, the point man with Bryan McCabe on the first power-play unit, said yesterday. "His vision is some of the best in the league. When he's out there it makes everything easier for everyone else."

When the other team's penalty killers don't have Wellwood to deal with, it results in less room for McCabe or Mats Sundin. Suddenly Tucker doesn't find the puck on his stick as often, or as quickly. Suddenly the team is 17th in the league on the power play. Suddenly there are 14 games left to save a season and become this year's Edmonton Oilers.

So, Wellwood's return couldn't come at a more urgent time.

"We miss him. He handles the puck so well. He moves around. We're not sure what he's doing out there so they can't be either," Maurice said. Nice to know they at least haven't lost their sense of humour.

"What Kyle allows us to do is make plays at the blueline. He'll give us a different look," Maurice said.

"He moves laterally, forward and backward as well as anyone in the game. He can work in a small area. Guys come within three feet but he'll still control the puck. He won't panic.

"He'll get the puck to Mats ... if (Sundin) isn't getting his opportunities it's usually because we're not doing enough around him ... Kyle gives Darcy options ... stay at the post or come to the front of the net ... he can hit McCabe on the backdoor."

Despite 15 minutes of power-play time in Thursday's 5-1 loss to Ottawa, Sundin did not get a shot. That'll have to change for a happier outcome in the rematch. So, Wellwood will play the power play although neither he nor Maurice are certain how much he'll be able to contribute on a regular shift. "I'm expecting to be tired the whole game. Coming off an injury, it's hard to judge how you'll react through your first game," Wellwood said.

Not exactly words to inspire what looked like Team Lazarus from the grave between Thursday and tonight.

"I'm not sure if I'm at centre or wing, I don't know if I'll play my full 15-18 minutes. I've been skating for two weeks and the hands are starting to come back. I handle the puck a lot and make some good passes and that's always an asset on the power play. That's what I'm going to try to bring."

It might not be enough. Toronto hasn't shown all year it can play with the elite. It went through a seven game losing streak in December -- and that was with Wellwood in the lineup. They are still without Tomas Kaberle, as intricate a piece of the power play as Wellwood. Ditto Mike Peca.

"Injuries ... it was the same last year," White sighed. So, how good is this team? With pieces consistently missing, even the players couldn't know.

"We don't sit around reminiscing about 'what if,'" White said, "but I think we'd be among the best in the league. It could be fun if everyone gets back.

"It would be nice to get a chance to see what could happen."


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