Kid learns a hard lesson

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

Growing up in the shadow of Swedish hockey icon Mats Sundin, young Anton Stralman should have been blowing up balloons in celebration of the captain's 37th birthday yesterday.

Instead, at the most crucial point in last night's encounter against the Buffalo Sabres, Stralman blew a tire.

It proved to be the decisive moment in the Leafs' 1-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the HSBC Arena, a play midway through the third period that led to the winning goal by Paul Gaustad.

As he was falling down, Stralman attempted to pass the puck to one of his waiting teammates. Instead it was gobbled up by the Sabres, who capitalized when Gaustad beat goaltender Vesa Toskala on the short side a handful of seconds later.

Cut Stralman some slack. At just 21 years of age, the rookie Swedish defenceman has been one of the few pleasant surprises on the Leafs roster this season and has shown enough flashes of excellence to leave team officials optimistic about his development.

But with general manager Cliff Fletcher poised to rebuild the franchise through youth, the obvious logical path to take, the team must come to grips with the following sobering dose of reality.

If you live by the kids, you'll die by the kids.

Youngsters learn through mistakes. They are going to happen. Of course, that was no consolation to Stralman.

"It was a bad decision," he said. "They just turned around on the play and scored."

APPLAUDS EFFORT

For his part, coach Paul Maurice applauded Stralman's effort, even if the outcome was not as planned.

"I think he regained control of it and tried to make a play but it came back in front of the net," Maurice said. "He's doing what we want him to do, going back and getting it. We want him to make plays."

Gaustad's goal, which snapped a 108-minute scoreless funk by the Sabres against the Leafs at HSBC Arena, made Toskala the hard-luck loser in his battle against Buffalo's Ryan Miller, the game's first star.

"Sometimes it's tough when you see the guy at the other end standing on his head. But I felt comfortable in there," said Toskala, who did criticize himself for a bad clearing attempt that led to the Gaustad goal.

When opposing general managers scour the Maple Leafs roster, looking to pluck away at it like any good scavenger might, the name of Toskala might be one of the few that jumps off the page at them as the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches.

No surprise there. After going through a wobbly first six weeks as a Leaf, Toskala has provided the type of goaltending that has kept the talent-challenged Leafs in a lot of games.

All the more reason not to get rid of him.

Under contract for two more seasons at $4 million US per year, Toskala provides the perfect foundation between the pipes for the Leafs until prospect Justin Pogge is ready to assume the role full time.

When and if that time ever comes.

Miller is a prime example of how valuable a good starting goalie can be to his team, turning aside all 35 shots for the win.

"(The Leafs) were desperate for points too," Miller said. "You're not going to keep them away from getting shots.

"It's a very satisfying win for us."


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