Antropov haunts Leafs in return

Leafs forward Tyler Bozak can't stay on his feet in front of the Atlanta Thrashers net during...

Leafs forward Tyler Bozak can't stay on his feet in front of the Atlanta Thrashers net during Tuesday's game. Toronto lost the game, 3-2. (Stan Behal/Toronto Sun)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:02 PM ET

Loudly jeered by the leather lungs at the Air Canada Centre for much of the night, former Maple Leaf Nik Antropov would have the last laugh Tuesday.

In fact, upon learning that his game-winning goal for the Atlanta Thrashers had, in fact, officially booted Toronto from post-season contention, Antropov broke into just such a chuckle.

“I didn’t know that. That’s nice to hear,” Antropov said after the Thrashers’ 3-2 win ensured the Leafs would miss the playoffs for a franchise-record fifth straight season.

“Good to know. Very good to know.”

Not for long-suffering Leafs fans, who have yet to see any playoff action since 2004 when Antropov’s Leafs were dumped in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Then again, most observers had counted out this edition of the Leafs from the post-season hunt long ago, perhaps from the time they won just once in their first 13 games.

But there is reason for optimism that maybe, just maybe, this team might be poised to make a run at the playoffs in 2010-11.

Yes, we know, “Wait til next year” has pretty much become the credo of the Maple Leafs franchise over the past half decade.

But, unlike previous years, there is young hungry skilled talent on this roster thanks to GM Brian Burke’s thorough housecleaning, not the aging veterans that were sprinkled throughout the lineup the previous four campaigns.

There are kids such as Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson, three rookies out of the U.S. college system who were reunited on the Frat Pack line in the third period by coach Ron Wilson.

There is Jonas Gustavsson who, despite seeing his seven-game winning streak come to an end Tuesday, has been one of the hottest goaltenders in the league since the Olympic break, leaving management eager to re-sign the pending restricted free agent once the regular season is over.

And there is ’09 first-round pick Nazem Kadri, who Tuesday was named the Ontario Hockey League’s player of the week after racking up nine points in three games during London’s first-round elimination of Guelph.

These are just some of the building blocks Burke hopes will finally put an end to a playoff drought that, frankly, has turned the Toronto franchise into the butt of far too many jokes around the rest of the league.

Stalberg, for one, showed a flash of his unlimited potential Tuesday, scoring both Leafs goals including the tying score at 3:47 in the third period. And while Antropov would notch the eventual winner just 57 seconds later to put the Thrashers up 3-2 for good, Wilson was pleased the way the Frat Pack gelled together.

“I had to make changes. I’m going to keep that group together,” said Wilson, who was very critical of the moribund effort turned in by many of his veterans.

Stalberg, who lives with Bozak, enjoyed the reunion of The Frat Pack, which made headlines with its fine play during the pre-season.

“After (Wilson) put us back together, I thought we played very well,” Stalberg said.

Gustavsson was gunning for his eighth consecutive victory. The modern-day franchise record is nine, set by former Leaf Felix Potvin in 1993 during the team’s NHL record 10-game winning streak to start a season.

Gustavsson had not tasted defeat since a 4-3 loss in New Jersey on Feb. 5, a game in which the Devils came from behind to score three times in the final four minutes of regulation.

“It was tough but we have to keep going,” Gustavsson said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”

Try telling that to members of Leafs Nation, who haven’t seen a post-season game at the ACC in six years.

And counting.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos