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Toronto forwards Stajan, Steen picking up the slack with Sundin out

TORONTO - Toronto captain Mats Sundin is doubtful for the latest must-win game Tuesday night against Boston but somehow that news doesn't carry quite the same urgency these days with the Maple Leafs.

Undoubtedly the Leafs would much rather have him back in the lineup, but a funny thing has happened over the last two weeks - the Leafs have found a way to win without their best player at the most critical juncture of the season.

In particular, young bucks Matt Stajan and Alex Steen have really stepped up in the absence of the team's two leading scorers in Sundin and Nik Antropov.

"Matt Stajan I think is playing the best hockey he's played in his career. It's great to see," Sundin said Monday. "Alex Steen the same way."

That puts a little less pressure on Sundin to force an untimely comeback. The 37-year-old centre joined his teammates for practice Monday for the first time since tearing his groin March 12 at Philadelphia. But Sundin lasted only 15 minutes.

"The skating is just not there yet where I can have a full practice," said Sundin.

"Obviously you want to get in there and help out as soon as possible but for me to do that, I've got to be able to skate the way I should out there and right now it's not there."

Head coach Paul Maurice didn't sound optimistic that his leader would be playing Tuesday night in the first game of a critical home-and-home series with the Bruins, who sit in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of Toronto.

"I'm not expecting him to play tomorrow," said Maurice. "If he walks in and does the morning skate and feels fantastic, we wouldn't hold him out. But we don't have expectations for him or Nik."

Antropov (knee) skated by himself before practice at Air Canada Centre on Monday and left the ice after 15 minutes. The question now is whether either Antropov or Sundin will appear in any of the team's remaining six games.

"I'm confident I'm going to play before the end of the season," said Sundin.

If not, 24-year-olds Stajan and Steen hope to continue to carry the load.

"I think I can play even better," said Steen, who has seven points (1-6) in his last five games. "But I've enjoyed every minute of it. Getting more opportunity and more responsibility. It's so much fun. That's what you play for, you want to be relied on."

It's not just offensive production. The two players have played big minutes while killing penalties, taking key faceoffs and playing late in games.

"They've responded very well - both of them," agreed Maurice.

Stajan, who had three points (2-1) in a pair of key weekend wins, said he's felt good about his game all season long, not just in Sundin's absence.

"All year I've felt more confident and more comfortable," said Stajan. "I've been playing against the top two lines pretty much all year. ... When you're facing an elite player from the other team, if you're not ready on any given night, it shows. I feel like I've done a good job getting myself ready all year. I worked hard last summer. Maybe the scoring isn't always there but all-around I feel like I'm improving."

Stajan seemed to blush when asked about a recent story by a leading Toronto sports columnist that suggested he'd be good captain material when Sundin left town.

"Mats is our captain," Stajan was quick to say. "And hopefully he comes back next year. Down the road? Who knows who it's going to be. I'm a 24-year-old guy. Steener has great leadership qualities. And guys like Tucks and Kabby have been leaders here a long time."

Steen also downplayed a question about his potential to wear the 'C' one day.

"We're getting ahead of ourselves here," said Steen. "We're worried about the eighth playoff spot."

Gritty weekend victories in Buffalo and Ottawa have the Leafs (80 points) sitting closer to a playoff spot. They need to sweep the Bruins in regulation and still need help after that. Washington (82 points), Buffalo (81 points) and Florida (81 points) all muddy the playoff picture for the Leafs. In fact, according to the math whizzes at, the Leafs still only rate a 4.5 per cent chance at getting in right now.

"We're very much aware of the importance of the upcoming games," said Steen. "If we don't get four points against Boston it puts us in a very difficult situation."

The Leafs, long ago written off by nearly everyone around them, have gone 12-4-1 in their last 17 games to keep their flickering hopes alive.

"I think we've had a couple of important things happen," Maurice said when asked to explain the surprising turnaround. "Having five of your big-name players that make a stand about wanting to stay here and be part of it - that was a real important moment for that locker-room."

The Muskoka Five as some people called them - Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina and Darcy Tucker - drew criticism from fans and media for refusing to waive their no-trade clauses last month but Maurice feels those decisions brought the room together.

Maurice also pointed to the fine play of goalie Vesa Toskala for another reason the team has thrived.

"Two months ago we started playing a better defensive game right around the time our goaltender got healthy and got on a roll," said Maurice. "I think that's brought a really good feeling in the locker-room."

And so the Leafs head into the second-last week of the regular season once again being asked to defy the odds.

"We're resilient," said Maurice. "We're getting hit and we're bouncing back up and staying in the fight. ...

"There's a belief now and a confidence that comes with having some success in some pretty difficult situations."


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