Ready or not, here he comes

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

In idyllic circumstances, Jiri Tlusty would play his first NHL game with the Maple Leafs on a hot streak and not with the scent of Rome burning.

But clubs No. 1 pick in 2006 gets baptized tonight in Pittsburgh, with the club's slow start fanning flames of panic among fans, perhaps soon to spread to the hockey office.

Tlusty's arrival and that of defencemen Anton Stralman and Staffan Kronwall the past 48 hours is being spun in large part as reaction to a rash of injuries. But there's no denying their presence in the room will catch the attention of some under-achieving players.

"It tells (an incumbent player) 'I need to bring to the table what I do best, because there are other options out there now', " coach Paul Maurice said yesterday after watching the new kids on the block at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "When your organization is making the turn, you start to have more options.

"We're not bringing Tlusty in and saying 'okay kid, you carry the mail'. But even if he doesn't get a hat trick (tonight), he's a viable option."

Tlusty had three points in five games with the Marlies and while scoring isn't the sore point with the 3-4-3 Leafs, team speed is suffering. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can run rings around Toronto, but Tlusty, on second-line right wing with No. 2 scorer Nik Antropov and Boyd Devereaux to start, gives the Leafs a fighting chance.

EXCITED

The Leafs hope the big smile on Tlusty's face will still be there after tonight's game, the first of four road contests in the coming 10 days after they frittered away key home points.

Tlusty was awakened at 1 a.m. yesterday by a call from general manager John Ferguson and told of the promotion. He immediately called his mother in the Czech Republic, knowing she's an early riser for her teaching job.

"She will be happy about this and so will my dad," Tlusty said. "It's very nice my first game will come against Pittsburgh. They have Crosby, Malkin and (No. 3 scorer and countryman) Petr Sykora. I want to play my best."

Maurice thought starting Tlusty on the road was an advantage.

"There won't be the oohs and aahs from the crowd if he makes a bad play," Maurice said. "We're just giving him an opportunity to see what he can do. He and Kronwall had good camps and they've continued that (with the 4-0-0-1 Marlies). I just hope Jiri doesn't spend all his time trying to find Nik with the puck, because Nik is probably best playing with defensive-minded players."

Kronwall still is behind fellow-Swede Stralman on the depth chart, after Stralman had a so-so NHL debut in the 5-4 shootout loss to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Both defencemen could play if Bryan McCabe's muscle strain doesn't improve, an injury that kept him out of practice yesterday.


Photos