Ponikarovsky thrives in leadership role

Toronto Maple Leafs Alexei Ponikarovsky is proving that he's ready to shoulder the added load in a...

Toronto Maple Leafs Alexei Ponikarovsky is proving that he's ready to shoulder the added load in a leadership role with the struggling club. (Toronto Sun/Ernest Doroszuk)

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

There have been some popular lines on the Maple Leafs over the years, from The Kid Line to the Hound Line. But in today's NHL, lines rarely stay together for long.

However, there's a chance the dynamic trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nikolai Kulemin may stick for quite a while.

Since head coach Ron Wilson put the three Russian-speaking forwards together a couple of weeks ago, the combination has, to say the least, clicked.

The question now is...what to name them?

How about 'The European Union'.

Perhaps not.

In any event, Wilson is feeling somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein when he created his monster (except when the monster went berserk) -- though the coach wasn't sure the three would click they way they have.

The intriguing part of it all is the way Ponikarovsky is playing.

There were worries that the Kiev, Ukraine native, who is now a Canadian citizen, would go into a funk after his friend and linemate, Nik Antropov, was traded to the New York Rangers on March 4.

In fact, the opposite has happened. Ponikarovsky now has 19 points (with six goals) in the 12 games since Antropov was dealt.

"Grabbo's playing really well, but the whole key to that line is how hard Ponikarovsky's playing," Wilson said, following Toronto's 7-5 loss to the Boston Bruins on Saturday, a game in which Ponikarovsky picked up two goals and an assist. "I don't think anybody knew how we would play when Antropov left, but it seems he's taking it all the right way.

"Everybody thought he'd go into a shell or something," Wilson added. "But I think he's come out of his shell. He's been a leader with those two guys, he plays hard every shift."

Ponikarovsky's line mates also have been firing on all cylinders. Centre Grabovski has 13 points in his past seven games while right winger Kulemin has five points in his past four.

Ponikarovsky's two goals against the Bruins gives him a career-high 23 on the season. The good-natured forward said speed and communication has been the big factor in the line's success.

"We're using our speed and we're supporting each other all over the ice and trying to play a simple game," he said. "We just chip it by the D (defence) and the other guy (goes to the puck) and the other guy goes hard to the net. Basically that's what it takes."

As for the communication part, the three speak Russian to each other on the ice and on the bench, which is key because neither Grabovski nor Kulemin speaks English well and there could be problems with communication when they play with North Americans.

"That means a lot," said Ponikarovsky, who also acts as an interpreter for Wilson when the coach is issuing instructions on the bench. "We talk to each other a lot."

Ponikarovsky said he took it upon himself to step up in the leadership department after nine-year NHL veteran Antropov was traded.

"I've been trying to be a leader for some time," he said. "It's working now and I'm going to continue that."

Antropov has also played extremely well since the March 4 trade -- recording six goals and four assists for the Rangers.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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