Leafs glad to stick with Nik

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

OSHAWA -- As Nik Antropov was introduced to the lively throng shoehorned into the GM Centre yesterday afternoon, he was greeted by a strange sound.

Cheers.

Being applauded by a pro-Maple Leafs crowd is unique for the big Kazakh, who easily has been the most frequent target of Toronto boobirds since Larry Murphy was patrolling the Toronto blue line a decade ago.

When the Leafs opted to re-sign Antropov to a two-year deal worth more than $4 million US over the summer, those same critics howled about the decision to return the oft-injured forward to the fold.

But in the minds of Leafs management, there was never any doubt that Antropov was a much-needed piece of the blue-and-white puzzle.

"It has always kind of surprised me," coach Paul Maurice said when asked of the negative public reaction toward Antropov over the years. "It was almost like there was an anti-Antropov media campaign out there.

"He's a good player, and I'm not the only one saying it. His teammates feel that way, and I know a handful of general managers I'm relatively close to out there who were ready to snap him up if he were available."

Added general manager John Ferguson: "Believe me, there were no shortage of teams waiting for him to come free. I mean, who wouldn't want a 6-foot-6, 230-pound. guy with good hands?"

HELP FROM FRIENDS

Antropov didn't disappoint those who were supporting him yesterday, thanks to a little help from his friends.

Playing on a line with Mats Sundin and Jason Blake, arguably Toronto's two most talented forwards, Antropov scored a pair of goals to lead Team Blue to a 5-1 victory over Team White during the club's annual intrasquad game.

While Maurice once again cautioned reporters about assuming that trio would start the season -- "Tell your editors we used 132 line combinations in our first 28 games last year" -- the chemistry between the three was evident. With Blake scoring early in the first period, the line accounted for three of Team Blue's goals.

"It's just an exhibition game," Antropov said afterward. "I'm just worried about being ready for the first (regular-season) game Oct. 3.

"It was fun to play with those two guys. The first thing I have to do is keep up to Jason Blake. He's really fast."

Whatever Maurice decides, it seems apparent that Antropov and Sundin likely will stick together, with either Blake, the front-runner, or Alexei Ponikarovsky, the third member of the line a year ago, occupying the other wing.

Regardless of who his linemates might be, Antropov is just glad to still be a Leaf.

"I could have gone somewhere else," said Antropov, who officially became a Canadian citizen in May. "But my wife and I love it here. This is where we want to be."

EYE-CATCHERS

Some of the other Maple Leafs who impressed during the Blue-White game:

- Jiri Tlusty -- Rookie forward cranked one off the crossbar and used his good wheels to zip all over the ice.

- Simon Gamache -- Had a goal and an assist. Perhaps the best kept secret at camp thus far, but not for long.

- Alex Steen -- Also had a goal and two points. He and Blake easily the fastest players on the ice.

- Matt Stajan -- Set up two goals. Showing early signs of a potential breakout season.

- Justin Pogge -- Only one of the four goalies to see action who didn't allow a goal.

HEAD-SCRATCHERS

- Andrew Raycroft -- Stickhandling gaffe allowed Kyle Wellwood to score into an empty net.

- Vesa Toskala -- Couldn't really be faulted for allowing three goals but also had problems handling puck.


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