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|14 марта 2007 года.
Antropov starting to pay big dividends // Toronto Star
Getting hot when Leafs need it most
Yes, this race for the final Eastern Conference playoff berths sure is tight.
Even tighter, however, is the apparent room in which the Maple Leafs' super-sized top line of Mats Sundin between Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky often appear determined to work when they apply pressure deep in an opponent's zone.
All three seem to crowd shoulder-to-shoulder within an imaginary box about 15 feet wide by 15 feet deep, three very large NHLers attempting to navigate a very small area.
On the good nights, it works against physically overwhelmed defenders. On the bad nights, it stagnates, goes nowhere.
Last night was one of those good nights, and these days the 6-foot-6 Antropov, always the easiest Leaf to grumble about, is the hottest of the club's shooters.
On Saturday night in an enormous, come-from-behind triumph over the Ottawa Senators, it was Antropov who batted in his own rebound to tie the game in the third and put the Leafs in a position to win on Darcy Tucker's OT score.
Last night, with the Leafs again forcing their way out of a deficit, it was Antropov potting the winner to produce a 3-2 victory over the very tricky Tampa Bay Lightning on a night the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff berths began to resemble a scrunched accordion.
Barely a note separates five teams – actually, only two points do – in a contest of wills that will likely come down to the final days of the regular season in April.
Having Antropov emerge as a go-to gunner in these excruciating times, clearly, is a reward for the patience Leaf head coach Paul Maurice has shown the Kazakh winger this season.
Quite simply, Maurice admires Antropov, admires his game and his work ethic and his talent.
So while many a Leaf fan sees only a ponderous first step while dreaming of adding a Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake or Keith Tkachuk via free agency this summer, Maurice continues to play Antropov as a first liner because he sees him as such.
Of late, Antropov has seemingly played with greater pace, and both of the important goals he has potted in the last two games were the result of pushing hard, then finishing with a delicate stick.
"He looks fast out there," said Maurice with a wry smile.
Last night, Antropov rimmed a puck to Sundin behind the Tampa net in the sixth minute of the third from high along the boards in the Lightning zone then bolted for the area occupied by Tampa goalie Marc Denis.
When Sundin returned the rubber, Antropov didn't just blast away, but made a nervy zig-zag move and then shoved a cute backhander inside the far post.
That a big man could make such a finesse move in tight, well, that's why the Antropov tease that has gone on for years now has hypnotized a series of Leaf general managers.
Until the past week, interestingly, that line of Ponikarovsky-Sundin-Antropov had seemed to go a bit stale, just like a football offence that continuously pounds off-tackle running plays without substantial gain.
"That was because I'd been running them so hard," said Maurice, referring to injuries to other top Leaf attackers that put more emphasis on Sundin's unit.
With Kyle Wellwood and Darcy Tucker back to supply additional offensive depth, the Leafs are able to create more contrasting styles among their forward lines, alternating the shiftiness of Wellwood with the extraordinary heft of Sundin et al.
For his part, Antropov shrugged when reminded of the numerous catcalls and boos he's heard over the course of his Leaf career, including earlier this season when they cheered at times when it was announced he would not play.
"They're not going to boo you for nothing. They see something out there," said Antropov, more understanding than most at the rough treatment. "But if you work hard and make some plays ... it's like they get on your side."
Antropov can't yet claim legions of adoring supporters. But this kind of production in these challenging conditions – tight and getting tighter – can't but change a man's reputation.