Help or hindrance?

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:25 AM ET

This time Nik Antropov held on to his stick.

Good decision.

Having served his three game suspension for chucking his stick at the officials at the conclusion of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes 10 days ago, the big Kazakh returned to the lineup yesterday and redeemed himself in a big way.

By deflecting an Anton Stralman shot past Dominik Hasek, Antropov's career-high 19th goal of the season gave the topsy-turvey Maple Leafs a dramatic come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre.

The victory, if nothing else, once again provided an example of just how unpredictable -- some would call it screwed up -- the 2007-08 season has been for Paul Maurice's squad.

In the span of just one week, the Leafs defeated the team that sits atop the overall standings in the Red Wings; beat the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators; and skated into Montreal and upset the second-ranked squad in the East, the Canadiens.

Squeezed among those triumphs was a humiliating 8-0 setback on home ice to the Florida Panthers, a team that normally finds itself offensively challenged,

There is no rhyme nor reason when it comes to explaining the trials and tribulations of the good ship Maple Leafs. Even coach Maurice can't find the answer as to why his troops can handle the league's juggernauts, yet struggle against many of its also-rans.

"I don't know what it means." Maurice said. "I know you all will be looking at how it might affect our draft pick or how far out of a playoff spot we might be, but just take (the win) for what it is worth."

General manager Cliff Fletcher has maintained all along that a few victories will not sway him from his plan to elevate the Leafs to a level where they can compete with legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

The Leafs certainly have done that in the past week by getting past the Habs, Sens and Wings, but Fletcher correctly is looking more long term than that.

Of course, if they keep racking up the wins, any rebuilding aspirations will suffer significant blows by making it more difficult to snatch the first overall pick in the draft lottery, one that likely will net Sarnia Sting superstar Steve Stamkos.

Whatever the case, the resurgent Leafs are not about to apologize for actually winning a game, especially against a quality opponent like Detroit.

"We're at a point where we want to win hockey games, especially with the difficult position we've put ourselves in the standings after what we've gone through," captain Mats Sundin said.

Sundin was buoyed by the return of Antropov, who joined the captain and rookie winger Jiri Tlusty on the team's top line. The trio proved to be an effective unit, with Sundin's weak shot tying the game at 2-2 at 13:35 of the third period before Antropov sealed the deal at 1:02 of overtime.

"I didn't know that until you told me," Antropov said when informed that he had eclipsed his previous season-high total of 18 goals set last season. "For me, we can count the points at the end of the season. I just want to help this team win games.

"We have never thought (we're out of the playoff hunt). Until it's official, no one in this room will say we don't have a chance."

Antropov has one more year remaining on his contract at a reasonable salary of $2.05 million US. With so many big name teammates holding no-trade clauses, he might be one of the more movable commodities for Fletcher.

"I want to stay," he said. "That's why I signed here. But it's up to management."

Who knows what will happen? These days the only thing you can expect from the Leafs is the unexpected.

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REPLAY

STAR OF THE GAME

The Maple Leafs would not have had a sniff of overtime against the Red Wings had goalie Vesa Toskala not kept them in the game with an acrobatic 32-save performance.

NO CANADA!

Not one Canadian-born player was on the ice for the opening faceoff of Hockey Day in Canada. The Red Wing starting lineup featured Dominik Hasek, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom while the Leafs went with Toskala, Pavel Kubina, Tomas Kaberle, Mats Sundin, Jiri Tlusty and Nik Antropov.

DINGED-UP DAN

Red Wings forward Dan Cleary, a native of Carbonear, Nfld., was lost for the remainder of the game when he was plunked on the side of the face with the puck in the first period. The Wings described the injury as a "non-displaced fracture" of the jaw.

BY THE NUMBERS

The Red Wings have scored at least two goals in 34 consecutive road game.


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