Injuries should mean more ice time for Tlusty with Maple Leafs

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TORONTO - Jiri Tlusty is getting another chance to shine with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A rash of injuries up front will result in the 19-year-old Czech skating on the Leafs' first line with captain Mats Sundin when Toronto faces the visiting St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night.

With left-wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky and Alex Steen out of the lineup after suffering right shoulder separations last week, head coach Paul Maurice says he's going to give Tlusty, Toronto's first pick in the 2006 entry draft, an opportunity to excel.

Tlusty made a splash when he scored two goals in his NHL debut last autumn, but he hasn't made any waves since - except for his apology last November after suggestive photos from his days with the junior Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were splashed across a website.

He has three goals and three assists, and a minus-five plus-minus showing, while appearing in 27 games. He's no Alexandre Ovechkin. He's seen only spot duty lately, but the desperate Leafs hope he can seize this opportunity and aid in a last-ditch team effort to move up from 14th place in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

"Hopefully I'll get more ice time than I got the last five games," Tlusty said after practice Monday. "I will try to play my best.

"We need lots of wins right now because everyone wants to make the playoffs."

Tlusty admitted he'll be nervous skating alongside Sundin.

"I was playing on the third line and waiting for a chance and hopefully I did good," he said. "I've been working hard and, hopefully, it's coming."

Tlusty used the all-star break to return to the Northern Ontario city where he played last winter. He visited with John and Debbie Campbell, with whom he was billetted, and attended an Oshawa-Sault Ste. Marie OHL game.

Rather can summon reinforcements from the AHL's Toronto Marlies, Maurice will return John Pohl and Wade Belak into the lineup. They've been healthy scratches.

The players remain convinced they've still got a shot at securing a playoff position.

"We're putting a playoff push on now and, like any time of the year, it's a real crucial part of the year," said Chad Kilger. "We're battling a couple injuries but we've still got 20 healthy guys that are really hungry and who'll give us everything they have to win."

Maurice was quick to point out that his team had a raft of injuries last winter and responded well.

"We have to have guys step up and play well and this will be no different," said Darcy Tucker.

Carlo Colaiacovo, his wonky leg better now, said he's prepared to suit up Tuesday night if asked, but Maurice downplayed that possibility. He doesn't want to rush the oft-injured defenceman back into action.

Bryan McCabe, rehabbing from a broken left hand, is skating but Maurice expects him back "as soon as he can handle the stick, take some shots, get through practice and feel good." That'll probably be at least another two weeks.

The Leafs are at Carolina on Thursday and return home to play Ottawa on Saturday.

Tucker was asked if he sees a deadline for a move up in the standings before management throws in the towel and moves players.

"As players, we can't control those decisions," Tucker responded. "As a player, you should go out there and concentrate on playing as hard as you can and doing the things you need to do to win hockey games.

"There's lots of cliches that are going to be used in the next week or two but we've got to concentrate on getting wins. That's all that really matters in (the dressing room). That always defines your team - wins and losses."

The Leafs need to make a six-point jump up in the standings to make inroads.

"Six points out isn't that much," said Jason Blake.

The desperate Leafs need to win Tuesday night to prove it isn't an abyss they can't escape. They'll be hoping Tlusty Time lasts longer than one night.



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