The future was on display last night for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Led by two goals each from youngsters Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman, it seems as though there may be light at the end of the long, long tunnel of disappointment.
The game, a 4-2 Leafs final and not-so-classic HNIC encounter between Toronto and Montreal, meant nothing for the home side. So it was to no one's surprise that the Leafs came flying out of the gate, out-shooting the Habs 10-2 in the first twenty minutes.
It was a surprise, however, to see Vesa Toskala still between the pipes for the Leafs, making his 30th consecutive start, even though the season is now officially a lost cause. It goes to show just how far Andrew Raycroft's stock has fallen. And it almost makes me feel bad for the guy. Almost. He's still a douche.
Raycrap will be between the pipes on Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres, and I hope the Sabres absolutely crush him. I'm thinking, like, 10-2. One of those severe beatings the Leafs are so good at taking. Lay it all on him, Buffalo. Make his final start in Toronto one he will never, ever forget.
Anyway, back to the kids. They were pretty damn good last night. At the beginning of March, Tlusty was on the fourth line, playing only a few minutes every night, leading me to question how his development was being handled. Wouldn't he be better served down on the farm with the Marlies, playing 20 minutes a night?
Tlusty will be on his way to the Marlies for their playoff run once the Leafs' season wraps up, and in recent weeks his ice time increased. In the last two games, he found himself alongside the Captain.
Well, Tlusty's made the most of his time on the first line. He scored twice on nifty deflections last night, and added an assist. It was his fourth point in the last two games. His second goal last night was his 10th of the season. Not bad for a kid playing limited minutes in his first NHL season. Hell, on some nights Tlusty was out on a line with sharp-shooter Wade Belak. Think about it, Jason Blake has 15 goals this year, only five more than our nudey-picture-taking youngster. Tlusty, only 20 years old, has a bright future and will be looked to improve on his numbers next year.
As for Anton Stralman, the Leafs are hoping they've found the next Tomas Kaberle in the smooth-skating Swedish defenceman. Kaberle was chosen with the 204th pick in the 1996 draft. Stralman was selected by Toronto in the seventh round, 216th overall. Kaberle certainly slipped through the cracks (thank God), and the Leafs are hoping they've found another diamond in the rough in young Anton.
Since the Hal Gill trade, Stralman has found himself a fixture on the Leafs blue line, and hasn't looked out of place. He can skate like the wind, can make the break-out pass, and definitely has some offensive flair. Anton's second goal of the game last night was a thing of beauty, and showed just how much talent this kid has. An end-to-end rush, Stralman finished it off with one hell of a wrist shot that hit iron and found the back of the net. Check it out here.
Like Tlusty, Stralman will be counted on a lot more going forward, especially next season. I think he's played himself on to the team next year, although there should be no guarantees. We've got to keep the kids hungry. But, with that being said, if the Leafs do move one of McCabe and/or Kubina, Stralman becomes all the more important.
Before I bid you adieu, I've got to shout out Nik Antropov for his performance last night as well. He racked up three assists, upping his point total this season to 56 in 72 games. For Antropov, it has definitely been a breakout campaign, one he desperately needed for his own psyche, to prove that he can play in this league. For the Antropov haters still out there, and there are plenty, there's more to his stats than just 56 points. His +10 is tied for second-best on the team, his 12 power play goals lead the club, as do his five game winning goals. Antropov, still relatively young at 28, is a key forward for the Leafs going into next year, regardless of what anyone says. The thought of trading Antropov should not even be entertained, especially with his bargain salary of just over $2 million dollars.
It's been another cluster-fudge of a regular season here in Toronto, but last night gave me a little bit of hope. And even though he won't be the coach of the Maple Leafs much longer, Paul Maurice was right about one thing: without hope, you ain't got a damn thing.