Missing Nik no issue for Poni

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

There were concerns that Maple Leafs winger Alexei Ponikarovsky would go into a funk when his long-time linemate and friend, Nik Antropov, was traded to the New York Rangers on March 4.

But the reality has been just the opposite.

Since Antropov left town, Ponikarovsky has been red hot, having recorded 14 points in the nine games since the trade deadline. That includs a four-point night in Toronto's 5-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday at the Bell Centre, the second time during the nine-game span Ponikarovsky picked up four points. The Kiev native now has 53 points, surpassing his career high of 45 set in the 2006-07 campaign. He also has 21 goals, which ties his career high (recorded twice), and with nine games left in the regular season, it's likely Ponikarovsky will reach a new milestone.

Leafs coach Ron Wilson recently has matched Ponikarovsky with centre Mikhail Grabovski and winger Nikolai Kulemin -- a Ukrainian, a Belorussian and a Russian. The Soviet Bloc, it seems, is alive and well. That line combined for 11 points against the Habs and would have had more if not for the fact that a Kulemin goal in the first period was disallowed on review, even though it had appeared to have crossed the goal line.

In any event, Ponikarovsky said he is not doing anything different the past couple of weeks.

"I don't consider myself hot or anything else," he said. "And I'm not thinking about the (scoring streak) right now. I'm just trying to play my game."

Ponikarovsky turns 29 next month so he's not automatically expendable as GM Brian Burke rebuilds the Leafs with prospects and draft picks. He has one year left on a contract which will pay him about $2.5 million US, so even if Burke wanted to trade him, the cost might make that difficult.

Needless to say, Wilson is pleased with Ponikarovsky's play. But what he's most tickled with is Grabovski's performance recently. The German-born centre has driven Wilson to distraction at times this season with his inconsistent play and his tendency to ignore his wingers as he attempts solo rushes down the ice. With Ponikarovsky and Kulemin, Grabovski is using his linemates much more, as evidenced by his three assists (and one goal) against the Canadiens.

"When he plays with Ponikarovsky and Kulemin, obviously they talk a lot of Russian on the bench, there's no miscommunication," Wilson said. "And Poni does a great job of backing up what I say when I talk to that line. He'll repeat everything I said in Russian to them and make sure they understand."

The Leafs, meanwhile, continue to surprise those who believe a team full of rookies and career minor leaguers, with virtually no chance of making the playoffs, should not win many hockey games. Instead, Toronto is 9-4-1 in its past 14 and have proven to be spoilers against teams fighting for a playoff spot, such as the Canadiens. Winger Jason Blake, who also scored against the Habs on Saturday and leads the team with 57 points, said the Leafs plan to play hard until the regular season ends, even if qualifying for the post-season is not in the cards.

WORKING HARD

"I know we're not the Detroit Red Wings or the San Jose Sharks. But we thrive on work ethic and using our speed up front and our goaltending," Blake said. "There has been a great group of guys in here. We've stuck together all year and we're just trying to do our best."

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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