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Maple Leafs finding out how tough life can be without captain Mats Sundin

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Maple Leafs finding out how tough life can be without captain Mats Sundin

The Canadian Press
By:

Dangerous offensive rushes were as rare as opportunities on the power play.

The Toronto Maple Leafs got a good look at life without Mats Sundin this week and it's fair to say they like playing without their injured captain as much as they like skating endless laps in practice.

"If you're missing Mats Sundin, you're missing one of the best players in the world," Leafs forward Matt Stajan said after Saturday's 2-1 loss to New Jersey. "He's our best player and obviously he's not replaceable."

It was never more evident than in Saturday's loss to the Devils and a 2-1 overtime defeat on Thursday night in Boston.

Two goals in two games isn't going to win you many hockey games.

"The last two, it just seemed like we hit a wall offensively," said Stajan.

Sundin was the team's leading scorer when he suffered a slight tear in the ligament on his right elbow. Two weeks and four games later, no Maple Leaf has yet to eclipse the captain's 19 points.

And Sundin's contribution to the club goes well beyond simply scoring. The big man likes to carry the puck down low in the offensive zone, which draws attention from defenders and opens up space for his linemates.

It also tends to draw penalties. Toronto is a team that gets a lot of its offence from the power play but has only had four chances in the past two games with a man advantage.

Still, coach Paul Maurice doesn't blame his team's offensive struggles on Sundin's absence alone, citing the 11 goals it scored in the first two games without the big Swede.

"We're not going to replace the big man, we know that, but we were still scoring enough goals (when he was first injured)," said Maurice. "I expect that group we have to score goals."

The problem might actually be that they had success in those first games without Sundin.

Maurice believes his team lacked urgency in the offensive zone during the losses last week.

"Our offence . . . is showing signs of complacency I think," said Maurice. "What happens is you score some goals and you get a little bit of confidence and you start taking it for granted a little bit."

Kyle Wellwood has taken over the role of the team's No. 1 centre in Sundin's absence. While he and wingers Alex Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov have shown some spark, they aren't exactly a threat to become the most potent line in the league.

Wellwood was on Sundin's wing early in the season and acknowledged how difficult life has become.

"It's going to be tough to score 5-on-5 without him," said Wellwood.

With four games in six days starting Monday against the New York Islanders, the Leafs need to find a way to do just that.

Despite the recent struggles, Toronto is still in the top third of the NHL with an average of 3.29 goals per game.

They know they have more in them.

"We've been cold the last few but we're going to get out of this with hard work," said Stajan.

They could also get a boost from Sundin himself. He's a noted quick healer and has been skating hard with assistant coach Keith Acton to maintain his fitness level.

Sundin is also targetting a return as early as this coming Saturday against Boston. If not then, he hopes to be back for the second game of the mini-series with the Bruins next Monday night.

In the meantime, Maurice will try to help his team get its offence going.

"You wonder how much of it is a little confidence issue," he said. "We'll get that back."

Especially when they get the captain back.

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Maple Leafs finding out how tough life can be without captain Mats Sundin