Young Leafs audition

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:38 AM ET

It started out innocently enough, young Anton Stralman gobbling up the puck in his own zone and moving forward toward the Bay St. end of the Air Canada Centre.

A couple of neat dipsy-doodles later, Stralman had left a couple of Montreal Canadiens defenders in his fumes as he streaked through the centre ice area, gaining speed as he went.

As he approached a pair of Habs defencemen in the high slot, the Swedish defenceman snapped off a quick shot to the far side that beat Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak.

The highlight-reel goal at 9:33 of the second period put the hosts ahead for good in the Maple Leafs' 4-2 victory over their long-time rivals, although, really, the two points do not really matter that much other than settling where the Leafs eventually will pick in the June 20 entry draft.

The real significance of Stralman's goal had more to do with giving the capacity crowd a glimpse of the Leafs' future. With the team having been eliminated from playoff contention Thursday, that is about all that is left to accomplish.

WORTH A SMILE

Sitting high in the press box, interim general manager Cliff Fletcher allowed himself to quickly smile at the sight of Stralman's accomplishment, not to mention that of fellow rookie Jiri Tlusty.

Both players notched a pair of goals last night, showing Fletcher that maybe, just maybe, there is room for guarded optimism as the struggling franchise looks to rebuild for 2008-09.

"We know he has skill. He just needs to bulk up a little bit," Fletcher said of Stralman.

As for the kid's electrifying rush, an impressed Fletcher said: "You can't teach something like that. We know he has talent."

With Fletcher and his eventual successor facing a summer of changing the face of a Maple Leafs team that has missed the post-season for three consecutive seasons, Stralman and Tlusty will be two key building blocks in the team's efforts to move forward.

"This is an opportunity for us young guys," Stralman, 21, said. "We have three games left and we have to use those to show (management) what we can do. For guys like Jiri and I, we've been getting a lot of minutes lately and we have to take advantage of that."

Not so long ago the Swedish press dubbed Stralman "the next Nick Lidstrom," a lofty comparison that probably is a bit unfair, given the Hall of Fame career the Detroit Red Wings blue liner continues to knit together.

Then again, Stralman's memorable rush last night showed why his potential is held in such high esteem back in his native country.

"I just picked up the puck in our corner and when I looked up, (the Canadiens) were in the middle of a line change," Stralman said. "I just decided to go with it. It's fun to score like that."

MARLIES BOUND

A year ago, coaches at the world hockey championship in Moscow voted Stralman one of Sweden's top three players in the tournament. The young defenceman would love to represent the Tre Kroners again at the coming worlds May 2-20 in Halifax and Quebec City, but the Leafs have him pegged to join the Marlies for the American Hockey League playoffs.

"I would rather go to the worlds," he said.

Tlusty, 20, has the opposite stance of Stralman. Already selected by the Czech Republic hierarchy to attend the country's pre-tournament camp, Tlusty's preference is to play for the Marlies.

"They have a good team down there," Tlusty said. "I'm excited to go down there and see how far we can go.

"Both Anton and I are young guys who came up from the Marlies. We are learning every time we are out there."

Standing in a nearby cubicle, goalie Vesa Toskala, who stopped 21 shots for the victory, was impressed by the efforts of the two budding Buds.

"I think Stralman is one of the fastest players in the league," Toskala said.

"And Jiri has a knack for scoring."

Fletcher only hopes both those trends continue next season.

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REPLAY

TURNING POINT

Young Swedish defenceman Anton Stralman put the Leafs ahead for good at 9:33 of the second period with an electrifying end-to-end rush culminated by a snapshot that sailed past a pair of Habs defencemen and into the far corner past Jaroslav Halak.

HOBBLED HABS

The Canadiens were without the services of captain Saku Koivu and defenceman Mark Streit last night. Each player was hit on the foot by a shot during the Habs' 4-3 overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres at the HSBC Arena Friday. Coach Guy Carbonneau said both will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

THAT'S GOTTA HURT

Leafs forward Jeremy Williams dabbled in rodeo as a teenager so he has taken the odd spill or two over the years. He took another one last night when he was felled by a vicious elbow from the Habs' Ryan O'Byrne in the first period last night. Williams was helped to the Leafs dressing room while O'Byrne received a five-minute major and game misconduct for his actions. Williams did return.

BIG SHOT

Goalie Vesa Toskala came up big at 5:48 of the second period when he thwarted the Habs' Christopher Higgins on a penalty shot. He became the first Leafs goalie to stop a penalty shot on home ice since Ed Belfour foiled the New Jersey Devils' Viktor Kozlov on Feb. 4, 2006.


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