Nik does the trick

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Here in this cosmopolitan city where the tall buildings reach for the heavens, the Maple Leafs' own skyscraper on skates continues to shine.

For those of us who questioned general manager John Ferguson's re-signing of the befuddling Nik Antropov to a two-year deal worth more than $4 million US over the summer, well, it's officially time to eat crow.

After watching the towering Antropov register his second career hat trick -- and a natural one, at that -- in the Maple Leafs' 6-2 victory over the New York Rangers last night, it is becoming quickly apparent that the 6-foot-6 winger is finally enjoying a breakout season at age 27.

You have to go all the way back to Antropov's rookie season to find his only other three-goal game. That came on Dec. 20, 1999 in Florida against the Panthers and goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov.

"I remember that Yushkie had to translate for me when I was talking to the press," said Antropov, referring to former teammate Dmitry Yushkevich. "I guess it's almost eight years to the day."

But enough of this journey down memory lane.

The here and now is what matters and, as far as Antropov is concerned, his career high of 18 goals could well be eclipsed by Christmas.

And last night, with Darcy Tucker sidelined with a sore shoulder, he certainly picked up the slack.

Having blown an early two- goal lead in the first period, the Leafs entered the second deadlocked at 2-2 and facing a Rangers team that appeared to be rejuvenated.

But a pair of Antropov goals in the second, followed by one early in the third, gave the streaking Leafs their fourth consecutive victory.

That is not a misprint.

The Leafs, buoyed by the goaltending of Vesa Toskala, have reeled off four wins, all coming after fans and media alike had turned up the heat on the Ferguson firing watch.

Now who is having the last laugh, eh, Fergie?

All three of Antropov's goals came in the dirty area -- the zone directly in front of the goalie. The final two were nifty tip-ins, something he has been working on for the past three years.

At the beginning of each practice and pre-game skate, Antropov anchors himself in front of the crease and works diligently on his deflections. In this instance, practice made perfect.

"I watched big guys like Dave Andreychuk and Todd Bertuzzi have success by standing in front of the net like that," Antropov said.

"Besides, with the new rules, it's hard for the defenders to move you.

"It was a great feeling to have a game like this here. This is one of the great buildings in the world."

Said coach Paul Maurice: "Nik has an incredible set of hands. I don't mean in the same way as Kyle Wellwood and Jaromir Jagr. He just has a knack for knocking pucks out of the air."

Antropov was not the only tower wearing blue and white to have a great game. Six-foot-eight defenceman Hal Gill had two assists and finished a plus-2.

The teams were meeting for the first time since that Nov. 10 tilt at the Air Canada Centre which featured the pre-game yapfest between Rangers agitator Sean Avery and the Leafs' Jason Blake and Tucker.

Ironically, neither Avery nor Tucker played last night. Avery is still a week away from returning after undergoing left wrist surgery for an injury suffered during a scrap with Tucker in that previous meeting just about a month ago.

With those two combatants dressed in civvies, the fireworks many had predicted never materialized.

Other than Antropov's lighting up of the Madison Square Garden scoreboard, that is.


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