Leaf aims to Buffalo 'em

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

Growing up a hockey fan and youth player in the Buffalo suburbs, Lee Stempniak remembers early bouts of Tie Domi vs. Rob Ray.

He remembers big Sabres forward Dave Andreychuk and game-stealing goalie Dominic Hasek.

And as much as anything, the new Maple Leaf remembers those hated Leafs fans who streamed across the border in an attempt to drown Buffalo fans at the old and soon to be imploded Aud.

"It's going to be interesting being on the other side," Stempniak said after yesterday's practice at the Air Canada Centre. "Growing up it was always: 'Look at those Maple Leafs fans coming down and crowding the arena. Why don't they just stay in Toronto.'

"Now that I'm playing for the Leafs it will be great to have the 'Go Leafs Go.' "

Tonight at HSBC Arena, Stempniak will play in front of two constituencies: His family and friends as well as those Leafs supporters still evaluating the Nov. 24 deal that sent Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to the St. Louis Blues.

In eight games with the Leafs, the West Seneca native has been held to one goal and two assists, in what he admits has been a slower star than he had hoped. While no one expected him to be the answer to all of the team's offensive troubles, Stempniak acknowledges that he would like to be able to deliver more offence.

Given the team's scoring woes, the sooner the better.

"I feel like I'm getting more comfortable with the system and the other players each game," Stempniak said. "Hopefully the offence comes around more and I can generate more scoring opportunities and contribute that way.

"It's tough when you are losing games and you are sort of looked at as a guy to score and set up plays and you are not doing that.

"I'm putting pressure on myself that way."

Not that Steen, the forward in the swap with the Blues, has been any great offensive dynamo, either. His goal and assist against the Nashville Predators on Monday were his first two points since the Nov. 24 transaction. Colaiacovo, meanwhile, has recorded four assists and has been seeing regular time on the St. Louis power play.

Like so many players on a Leafs roster where precious few are considered untouchable, Stempniak will need to start producing if he wants to be around when the team gets good. With Nik Hagman still out with a concussion, Stempniak likely is to centre speedy wingers Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski tonight against the Sabres.

Against the Phoenix Coyotes last week, he was on the top line with Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov, all part of the process as coach Ron Wilson determines where he fits best.

The upside, from Stempniak's point of view, is that he's becoming more comfortable with a new system, one he believes is better suited to the one used by the team that drafted him in 2003.

"Part of it is finding my way within the system," Stempniak said. "I was in St. Louis for four years and it was the same system and I became used to that. Now it's a little more thinking. You have to trust your instincts more and think like a hockey player.

"A lot of (the line switching) is it seems we are getting scoring from one line at a time and we're trying to find some balance."


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