Leafs' youth maturing just in time

TERRY KOSHAN

, Last Updated: 4:11 PM ET

Paul Maurice didn't want to play the name game but couldn't help himself.

Following the Maple Leafs' victory in Ottawa Saturday night, the head coach was loathe to start singling out some of his players for their recent solid play, preferring to stress the team as a whole.

But the names started spilling out -- Matt Stajan, Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Jiri Tlusty, Ian White -- youngsters who have caught Maurice's imagination during the recent burst of success.

"We will take Mats (Sundin) back (when the captain has recovered from a groin injury), but there is something to the players taking ownership for the wins and losses," Maurice said. "You are waiting for that secondary leadership, and you don't always expect it from 24-year-old guys, but I think Stajan and Steen and those guys up front have really come through in our time of need. The nice part about injuries is everyone else knows they are going to be playing."

Sundin, who gave his groin a good workout Saturday morning and that night said he felt a little better, was hoping to practise with the team today with an eye toward returning tomorrow night against the Boston Bruins. Boyd Devereaux, who has missed 15 games with a knee injury, is expected to play against the Bruins.

Stajan averaged just over 13 minutes of ice time a game in his first three NHL seasons but now is handling more than 20 with poise. He has scored in back-to-back wins and had a big shot-block against the Sabres in Buffalo on Friday night. Steen has a goal and six assists in his past five games, White has been solid as far as small defencemen go, and Wellwood's backchecking has opened eyes.

Stajan, who agreed with the notion that he is playing the best hockey of his NHL career, wants to see Sundin back as soon as possible. But he stressed that those who have stepped up can't fall back once Sundin re-appears.

"I don't think you can replace what Mats does," Stajan said. "I do think that when he is in the lineup, we have to do a little more. I think maybe guys sit back and wait for him to do something when we should be taking it on ourselves a little more. We have to keep that going when he gets back and we need that soon."

Steen echoed Stajan's thoughts on the big Swede.

"We can't go back to relying on Mats to do it on his own," Steen said. "We have to make sure we keep our focus on what we have been doing."


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