Leafs shuffle top line

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Rather than bang his head against the glass or scream nonsensically into the air, Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson decided to do the next best thing in the hopes of snapping his club's four-game losing streak.

He shook up his forward lines. Again.

Wilson broke up the team's supposed No. 1 trio at practice yesterday, moving the club's leading scorer, Nik Antropov, to a unit that includes rookie centre John Mitchell and winger Niklas Hagman.

His usual linemates, centre Matt Stajan and winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, will play alongside Lee Stempniak. That's likely how those lines will look tonight in Carolina.

Until general manager Brian Burke pulls off a trade, there is little Wilson can do to propel his team back into the win column, short of skating them hard in practice and breaking up lines.

The Leafs have lost eight of their past 10, with the next two games on the road, tonight in Carolina against the Hurricanes and tomorrow in Atlanta against the Thrashers.

"I'm just trying some tweaks to get a couple of guys going," Wilson said of the moves. "Maybe a different look is what they need. They'll have to communicate with each other in a different manner -- more talking on the bench."

The Leafs have scored only nine goals in their past six games and Antropov, with 13 goals and 33 points in 43 games, has not scored in 11. The big Kazakh greeted his demotion -- such as it is -- with open arms, admitting that something had to give.

"I've already said I'm not really happy with myself, with the way I'm doing things on the ice," he said. "I don't think I'm shooting enough. Early in the season, I averaged maybe five plus shots (per game). Now, it's about two. It's not enough."

Antropov said scoring slumps are nothing new to him at the NHL level, but admitted there are a couple of things he can do to try to break out of it.

"I'm just going to go hard at the net and look for a lucky bounce, stuff like that," Antropov said, adding that he is not ready yet to push the panic button. "I'm not excusing myself, it's just one of those things in hockey. But I'm really pushing myself and getting on myself, which is probably not the right thing to do."

Wilson also is looking for some of his young veterans, such as Antropov, Ponikarovsky and Stajan, to step up in the leadership department and be more vocal. Wilson has complained about a lack of leadership on the team, and that is one of the reasons why the club traded for Brad May last week.

Ponikarovsky believes that, in the dressing room, inspiration and leadership have been a shared commodity, and perhaps a few of them do have to take the bull by the horns.

"We're basically the leaders right now and it's up to us how we react to (the losing streak)," he said. "We have to show we still want it and we can still do it."

Of their eight most recent losses, the Leafs actually out-battled and/or outshot the opposition in many, but either were stymied by a hot netminder, or let down by their own goalie.

"That sucks the energy out of you and we've got to find a way to create some scoring moments in a game, whether it's just getting lucky or whatever," Wilson said. "But we have to find something good that we can hang our hat on and get enthused again."


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