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Nik Antropov, Toronto Maple Leafs both earning some respect this season

It's been a common occurrence over the years because the 25-year-old has missed long stretches with a variety of injuries since his NHL debut with the team in October 1999.

Antropov is the third-longest serving Leaf and easily the one who has most consistently been disrespected - both at home and around the league.

But big No. 80 is starting to show signs of coming into his own. After missing most of the first month with an ankle injury, Antropov has four goals in eight games and is a plus-5 in the two games Toronto has played without injured captain Mats Sundin.

He's even starting to get some support from the fans at Air Canada Centre.

"It's always nice to hear them on my side," he said Saturday after scoring a goal in Toronto's 5-1 win over Montreal. "But as long as (the) team is winning, that's the most important thing."

They've been doing plenty of that early in the season. Antropov is a fitting poster boy for a team that has surprised many so far.

Toronto is 11-5-3 and its 25 points are third-best in the Eastern Conference. That's pretty good for a team that many thought would have a tough time getting to the post-season.

The Leafs took notice of what people were saying about them before the season.

"Definitely, we feel underestimated. You look at people talking about our forwards and not a lot of depth and stuff," said No. 1 goalie Andrew Raycroft, who watched Saturday's game in a suit because of a mild groin strain. "But I think we all realized that we had the talent here."

Toronto currently has eight players with at least 12 points, which is more depth than any other NHL team can boast.

It's helped them continue to roll even after losing leading-scorer Sundin, who will be out another two to three weeks with a ligament tear in his right elbow.

"That's how you need to win in this league now," said Raycroft. "You need four lines going. You need six, seven 'D' going all the time.

"If we can just continue to win no matter who's in the lineup or who isn't in the lineup, it's a good thing."

The solid play of Antropov has probably been the biggest surprise. Coach Paul Maurice says the Kazakh has helped the team adjust to life without Sundin because he gives them a big presence in the offensive zone.

When it comes to evaluating Antropov, it's a matter of managing expectations. Sure, he's six-foot-six and has decent hands, but he'll never be Joe Thornton.

That doesn't mean he can't be valuable for the Leafs.

"He can be a really important piece," said Maurice. "He's going to do a bunch of things really well.

"He may not excel in one area necessarily."

What makes Toronto's strong start especially surprising is how much hockey they've had to play. The Maple Leafs had 19 games in the first 39 days of the season and now get to enjoy some rest before visiting Boston on Thursday.

It couldn't have come at a better time for a team that has won six of its past seven games.

"Yeah, finally," said forward Kyle Wellwood.

Added Maurice: "We were dragging there for awhile. We were getting by nip and tuck."

The time off might also allow two of the team's better players to return. Raycroft could be back in goal while defenceman Pavel Kubina is expected to return from the Czech Republic, where he has been since his partner had a baby last week.

They'll still need everybody to keep contributing while Sundin continues to recover.

"When your best player's out . . . you need everyone to pull the ship forward," said defenceman Bryan McCabe.

Even though Sundin's out of the lineup, he's still spending a ton of time with the team.

Maurice said his captain might have been more excited than anyone else in the dressing room after the win against Montreal.

"He's like a five-year-old kid in there jumping up and down," said Maurice. "He's happy for everybody - guys who scored and won the game.

"It's nice. He's a big part of everything we do. He's around the guys and he's a good personality in our locker-room."

Indeed, the mood was downright buoyant on Saturday night. The Maple Leafs are trying to enjoy the moment without getting caught up in it.

"We're playing well, we feel good about ourselves," said Raycroft. "But at the same time we realize there's a lot of work to do still."


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