Poni not the same since gaffe

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

ANAHEIM -- The demon came looming from the North Carolina night, measuring four feet tall, six feet wide, a near-transparent white that luring a mesmerized Alexei Ponikarovsky closer before snatching his soul.

Three weeks later, that empty net in Raleigh still haunts the Maple Leafs forward, who hasn't had a point in eight games since. Meanwhile, a team that should have won 3-1 over the Hurricanes that night to improve its 7-2 run, instead lost in overtime and has slumped to 2-4-2 in the interim.

Ponikarovsky, stripped by Cory Stillman of the Hurricanes and then party to the last-minute tying goal, eventually lost his first-line role with Mats Sundin.

"He's not been the same player," Leafs coach Paul Maurice summed up yesterday. "Alexei is a good man and I hope he's not carrying that game with him. But at a certain point, there are no other options. He has to play better."

UPS AND DOWNS

Ponikarovsky, who together with Nik Antropov had been working well with Sundin, was up to 11 goals at the time of the grand gaffe and seemed a cinch to tie his career high of 21, set last season. He had a three-point game just two nights before against Atlanta.

"I don't think it has haunted me at all," Ponikarovsky insisted. "Sometimes you have ups and downs. That was obviously one of the downs.

"But you battle back and try to get a goal."

Ponikarovsky and Antropov are in the same pickle as other Leafs who were moved off the first line -- prove they can score without Mats Sundin as their centre.

"We can do the same thing with Kyle Wellwood there," Ponikarovsky said of the line's most recent facelift.

Both Ponikarovsky, who stands 6-foot-4, and the 6-foot-6 Antropov should come in handy tonight against the Ducks, a team that championed big men playing down low when they won the Stanley Cup last spring.


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