Soviet union for Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

Ron Wilson can't understand a word they say to each other.

But if Nik Antropov, Mikhail Grabovski and Alexei Ponikarovsky can be on the same script tonight in Pittsburgh, they'll be speaking the coach's language.

Toronto's revamped first line, with more pressure than ever to score in the absence of Mats Sundin, gets its first test against the Penguins.

If the short-in-stature Grabovski isn't the answer at centre, then a new line built around Antropov is the next step.

"I'm hoping they'll have some chemistry and I'll give them a chance to succeed," Wilson vowed yesterday at the Air Canada Centre. "I won't break them up. I know what Pony and Antropov can do, but this whole thing is about getting Grabovski comfortable. "His English isn't great and it helps that those guys are translating a lot of things."

Acclimatized Canucks Antropov and Ponikarovsky came from Kazakhstan and Ukraine many hockey years ago, but are dipping into their Russian vocabulary to help out Grabovski.

"Three guys speaking Russian ... no one else will be able to understand us," Ponikarovsky said with glee. "It's going to be fun and it's going to be different."

Grabovski came from the Montreal Canadiens, where he wasn't getting enough playing time among similar-sized forwards.

In exchange for a second-round pick, the Leafs have a player whom general manager Cliff Fletcher targeted specifically to replace some of Sundin's lost offence.

Where the 6-foot-5 Sundin was the go-to guy and fellow giants Antropov and Ponikarovsky barged in to feed at his trough, the 5-foot-11 Grabovski brings a new dynamic to the group.

That was apparent yesterday when he was knocked flat by a hit that Sundin would've brushed off, yet the 24-year-old had the gumption to keep the puck, stickhandle on his stomach and send a good pass to his winger.

"He's a small skill guy, very fast and he complements us," Ponikarovsky said. '"We played a couple of games against him in Montreal last year, but this is a different team, different situation and he's playing a different role here."

Wilson says he'll leave the trio room for creativity.

"As long as they buy into our (defensive) system," the coach said. "What they do up ice is entirely up to them because they have a lot of skill."


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