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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson (right) controls the puck despite pressure from Carolina Hurricanes Scott Walker during third period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (CHRIS YOUNG)
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson (right) controls the puck despite pressure from Carolina Hurricanes Scott Walker during third period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (CHRIS YOUNG)

Leafs' Gunnarsson makes his case Add to ...

For guys in their 20s, crashing on a buddy's couch is about as normal as beer pong and Kraft Dinner. And just because your pal moves to the other side the Atlantic Ocean to play in the NHL, doesn't mean couch surfing is suddenly off-limits.

At least that's true as far as 25-year-old Petter Kramtz is concerned. After all, he says, Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, who offered up his couch this week, "wasn't famous when we met."

Gunnarsson isn't all that famous in Toronto even now - although he could be if he continues to play like he did last Tuesday, when the 23-year-old Swede helped secure a 4-3 overtime victory over the Boston Bruins with a second-period goal.

It is the 6-foot-2 defenceman's first season in the NHL, and the second time he's scored a goal, but his achievement was largely outshone by that of another young player trying to prove his worth: 21-year-old Luca Caputi, whose goal tied the game 3-3.

Unlike Caputi, who grew up north of Toronto idolizing Doug Gilmour and the Maple Leafs, Gunnarsson grew up cheering on Team Sweden.

He's a native of Orebro, and was drafted in the seventh round of the 2007 NHL draft, so last Tuesday, he didn't have the hometown-boy-makes-good storyline or the 35-member cheering squad who only had to drive 20 about minutes down the Don Valley Parkway to get to the Air Canada Centre.

What Gunnarsson did have in the crowd was a couple of friends who had taken a break from their university studies for a two-week road trip through North America and were grateful for the chance to see Canadian hockey fanaticism up close. ("It's like religion here," Kramtz said.)

They stood and roared when Gunnarsson tied the game 2-2 with 1 minute 22 seconds remaining in the second period on a shot from the point.

"He played 24 minutes [actually 23:34]" Kramtz pointed out yesterday, as he sat in the stands at Toronto's MasterCard Arena, where Gunnarsson had sweet-talked the security guards into letting Kramtz and another friend in to watch the NHL team practice (the other friend requested his name not be published).

Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said Gunnarsson would see more minutes - if he keeps up his level of play.

"[Tuesday,]he had an exceptionally good game," Wilson said after wrapping up an hour-long practice. "I'd love to see him play like that every night, but at the same time I know, this being his first year in the league, he may not.

"When we see a guy take charge the way he did [Tuesday] we give him more ice time."

Gunnarsson is part of a crew of young players trying to prove they're worthy to suit up with the Leafs next season.

His quiet effectiveness shows statistically, too, although not with goals or assists. Despite having missed a number of games due to an elbow injury, he leads the team in plus-minus (plus-9 in 27 games) - a statistic considered to be one of the best indicators of a player's impact on a team.

"We can't make the playoffs, so we're just playing to show the guys upstairs that we're NHL players," Gunnarsson said.

Also yesterday, Leafs general manager Brian Burke was otherwise occupied in Florida, where the league GMs announced they had unanimously recommended a rules change covering hits to the head.

The decision was viewed optimistically in the Leafs dressing room - even among players who like to throw their weight around.

"Those shots, those hits to the head, there's no place for them in the game. All that comes out of it is guys get hurt," defenceman Dion Phaneuf said.

The proposed change needs to be reviewed by the NHL competition committee and passed by the board of governors before it can go into effect next season. Until then, however, Wilson doesn't plan to weigh in.

"When I see it on paper, we'll talk about it. But there's no new rules for this year, so you just keep on playing," the coach said.

Tonight, the Leafs take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at home. After which, Gunnarsson says, he intends to play tour guide for his pals. "I know where to take them. The CN Tower, [Hockey]Hall of Fame, Niagara Falls …"

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