Get On Your Boots!

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    Niklas Hagman, with 15 goals, sits 18 in goals scored this season, fellow european Alexei Ponikarovsky is a little further down, ranked 29th in NHL goal scoring with 12 on the year so far.

    Phil Kessel and Matt Stajan both have more goals than Brad Richards, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Patrick Kane.

    And while these stats are a welcome sight to most fans, many would agree that the secret to the Leafs success lies much deeper.  At least, much deeper down the depth chart.

    While the Leafs likely wouldn’t be close to digging themselves out of their early season hole without the solid offensive contributions of players like Stajan, Kessel, Hagman, and Ponikarovsky, they also wouldn’t have nearly the record they do in their last 12 games if it weren’t for the tireless checking of the bottom six forwards.

    Led by the line of Wayne Primeau, Lee Stempniak, and Nikolai Kulemin, the Leafs have seen a resurgence of sorts in the points standings, a product of hard work, a conscious two way effort, and the willingness to dig deep and work hard when it matters most.

    When Brian Burke took over this team just over a year ago, he spoke of how he enjoyed a top six that could score, and a bottom six that could grind and tire opponents.

    While it’s far from a perfect incarnation, it appears he and Ron Wilson and Brian Burke are using the tried and tested business model effectively over the last month or so.

    It all starts with Primeau, the proverbial straw who stirs the drink.

    Acquired by Burke in the summer in exchange for Anton Stralman and Colin Stuart, Primeau epitomizes what it means to work hard, and while standing in the face of adversity, to not retreat.

    After a disastrous campaign last season with the Calgary Flames which saw Primeau miss considerable time due to injuries, he was brought in by Burke to give the Leafs an identity.  He was also a player who had his best years under Ron Wilson in San Jose.  A mutual respect between the two, player and coach.  Primeau knows how to meet Wilson’s demands, and Wilson knows how to push the right buttons and get the most out of the travelled forward.

    Primeau is gaining the coaches trust by the game, by the shift even.  And he isn’t alone.

    Nikolai Kulemin is another player who has came of age to speak right before our eyes this season.  He spent part of the season early on in the press box, coaches complaining his commit level just wasn’t there.

    After watching a few games as a spectator, Kulemin got the message.

    He has been a lineup regular ever since, and lost in the mix of the team’s turnaround has been his solid, responsible play.

    Kulemin only has nine points in 28 games, and he is also a minus 3, but these stats can be disputed by anyone who has watched him over the last month and a bit.  Kulemin has been using his size and speed to his advantage, and has shown a want level that is more to Ron Wilson’s liking.

    Lee Stempniak has also enjoyed a bit of a rejuvenation in his style of play.

    While he may never reach the goal totals he once did, he has been committed to a team first game since early in the season, and has found his niche on a checking line with Primeau and Kulemin.  His shorthanded goal against the Capitals was the definition of what the Leafs management wants to see from him.

    The ultimate compliment?  Playing against the best players in the league, and this line got to do just that on Saturday night.

    The Stempniak/Primeau/Kulemin line started the night matched up against Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and while Ovechkin and Backstrom did manage to find the scoresheet, it was hardly the fault of the Leafs top checking unit.

    While they manage to tally three goals on Saturday night against the Leafs, truth is, the Primeau line was only on the ice for one of the three goals against.

    A pretty high compliment for the three players.  But that’s exactly how Ron Wilson operates.

    The Leafs have been much better at home as of late, and it’s a stat you can directly relate to the fact that the Leafs have the last change, which they utilize to get the checking line out against other team’s top units.

    It’s the ultimate compliment for a checking line forward, and it will likely continue tonight when the Leafs host the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre.

    Primeau, Stempniak, and Kulemin.  Proof positive that hard work certainly can go a long  way.

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