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Unlikely top line emerges for Leafs Add to ...

It was hard not to note the contrast.

One line was pushing hard, making plays happen and, most importantly, putting the puck in the net.

The other had its top player in Phil Kessel stapled to the bench for the end of the second period, the result of a soft back check on his team's only goal against.

But then again, it's been that sort of season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, one in which the team's nominal second line has really been its first almost the whole way through.

And after 20 games, it's clear the trio of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur deserve more ice time - and likely more attention from the opposition.

On this night, it was Kulemin who did the most visible damage, scoring the first two goals in a 4-1 win over the Dallas Stars that gave netminder Jonas Gustavsson all the goal support he needed early on and the Leafs their third win in four games.

Kulemin's linemates Grabovski and MacArthur, both spending time in various doghouses in previous seasons, again helped control puck possession when they were on the ice and look well on their way to career years.

On this night, the trio were all plus-2 and had eight of Toronto's 25 shots on goal.

Not bad for a line that started as a training camp experiment by coach Ron Wilson.

"At the start of the year, you'd never have expected us to click like that," MacArthur said in the dressing room after the game. "I just feel like we all have a good little quality and we're hungry every night. That's the biggest thing.

"I've played on lines where, some nights we're taking nights off, and these guys are bugging me every day to go to the morning skates even when they're optional. I mean they're hungry every night. They've been pushing me and I've been trying to push back so I think it's working out good that way."

The results so far have to constitute the most pleasant surprise of Toronto's season. MacArthur leads the team in scoring with 18 points in 20 games, while Grabovski is second with 16 and Kulemin tied for third with Kessel with 13.

Grabovski's 20 goals and 48 points two years ago are the most any of the three have ever totalled in a previous season, but so far they are all are on pace to better those totals.

As a line, they now have 19 of Toronto's 47 goals this season, despite playing second fiddle to Kessel and Co. and getting only second unit power play time. With the Leafs' desperately in need for offence, it'll be interesting to see if Wilson pushes them into bigger minutes and if opposition coaches begin to key more on the line.

Kulemin's English skills are still too limited to offer much insight into his recent run of six goals in 10 games, but both Wilson and MacArthur offered enough praise to compensate after the game.

One of Kulemin's most obvious assets is his size, especially on a team with few forwards with size. Much of his 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame is in his lower body, making him difficult to move out of the slot or take off the puck.

"It's not always elegant with Kulie," Wilson said. "The first goal, it goes off his leg, but he's standing in front of the net where he should be. The second one he got off a good wrist shot, followed his rebound and buried the rebound. He's got a lot of rough edges, but he's hard to play against because he's so big and strong."

"Times like right now, this little streak he's put together, he's finding holes," MacArthur added. "I mean, when you can't move a guy, it's really hard to defend, so I definitely think he's got that [offence]in him. He's got a lot of potential when it comes to putting goals in."

While the three have connected well on the ice, MacArthur said the lines of communication off it have been slow to come. He has yet to learn any Russian, even though they taught him "pass" and "shoot" at one point.

The three also had one awkward dinner together in Tampa on a road trip.

"We lost so no more dinners with the Russians," MacArthur quipped. "There wasn't much said from me. The two of them talked and I sat there again..."

Other teams also aren't getting an earful from Grabovski and Kulemin.

"They don't say a whole lot," MacArthur said. "I talk for our line once in a while.

"On the ice, I feel like our communication's really good. I know what's going on. We like to play in straight lines and Grabo's so good at going side to side and supporting both sides.

"My Russian's terrible. That's a tough language to pick up. I'm looking to get at least a sentence by the end of the year, I want to say something on the TV in Russian, but I've got to work on it yet."

For now, the Leafs will take what they can get, rough edges and all.



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