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|15 февраля 2009
Antropov answers Burke's call // Toronto Star
Nik Antropov looks anaemic at the best of times, all gauntand sunken, the skin almost translucent he's so pale.
And these have not been the best of times for the lanky, laconic Kazakh.
But in the past fortnight, after being called out - or challenged, depending on your perspective - by GM Brian Burke, the lifetime Leaf has shown a bit of blood rising. Perhaps he's even shown enough to propel himself out of town by the trade deadline, should his currency have escalated sufficiently.
"That's one way of looking at it," the 6-foot-6 forward concurred, after Toronto polished off Pittsburgh 6-2, a St. Valentine's Day evening when team offence and defence were working in tandem, No. 80 contributing No. 18 on the season and two assists.
This is Antropov's 10th season as a Leaf, his 500th career game quietly entered in the books last Tuesday, just around the time he began to shake out of a deadening, depressive slump. He'd been nearly 0-for-January and was 16 games without a goal.
"But that wasn't the worst slump of my career. I went 18 games without scoring in my second season."
The jury seems endlessly out on Antropov, Toronto's first-round draft pick, 10th overall back in 1998. Too fragile, not strong enough on the puck given his size, lacking an oomph factor - not quite the go-to guy, especially when the Leafs desperately needed someone to take the weight on a club trying to reinvent itself, post-Mats Sundin Era.
"I tried not to get down on myself. I've spent my whole NHL career in Toronto, so I have become used to the criticism. Mats was a good role model because I saw how he dealt with it over the years. Criticism comes with playing in Toronto.
"What (Burke said) ... well, that's his opinion. I can only try to control what happens on the ice."
Still, it's the opinion that counts most. And, frankly, Antropov is deluding himself if he honestly believes that Toronto is a tough environment for a hockey player. This city is mush compared to the unforgiving likes of Montreal and Boston and Philadelphia. Antropov might find that out shortly.
On this night, however, Antropov & Co. were understandably feeling good about their effort, feeling relieved.
"After the second period, we could feel it in the dressing room," he said, even though Toronto was trailing 2-1, Antropov first on the board for the home side. The Leafs had outshot Pittsburgh 14-5 in that frame and the Pens were visibly sagging on rubbery legs.
"It was just a matter of time," coach Ron Wilson observed afterward.
Still, third periods haven't been kind to the Leafs of late, with chubby leads squandered. It was heartening to see, on this occasion, a squad that kept coming, opportunistic on the puck and the break-out, most especially when Antropov pounced on an errant pass deep in the Toronto zone and freewheeled up-ice, a rush that resulted in Alexei Ponikarovsky scoring his 17th from the crease.
While Jason Blake continued his goal-popping ways with a brace in the third, only 19 seconds apart, a clutch of other Leafs proved mettle Vesa Toskala, so shaky to start, settled down and denied Pittsburgh anything after the 8 34 point of the game; scrubeenie defenceman Luke Schenn recovered from an unfortunate bounce off his skate that Matt Cooke converted into Pittsburgh's first goal; and Matt Stajan re-established favour with his bench boss, mounting a solid performance topped off by a goal and an assist.
"Stajan hadn't looked very good the last four or five games," noted Wilson, who rarely passes up an opportunity to needle, allegedly constructively. To wit "Don't plan a parade route yet."
Rest assured, coach.