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Leafs defencemen pulling their weight on offence

The scoring heroics of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season have been well documented.

Kessel stood in second place overall in the NHL's scoring race with 48 points (24 goals) heading into Wednesday action while Lupul, his linemate, is tied for fourth spot with 47.

A lesser-known but equally important aspect to the Maple Leafs' rise to respectability this season has been the scoring prowess of the group whose primary responsibility is to defend.

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Toronto defencemen have been busy this season, especially at the offensive end where their production has helped put the Leafs in the thick of a playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference.

Through their first 42 games of the season, the Leafs defence has tallied 101 points, the third highest total in the NHL.

The Western Conference-leading Vancouver Canucks boast the highest scoring defensive crew with 108 points, followed by the surprising Ottawa Senators, with 107.

Last season after 42 games, Leafs defencemen had contributed just 72 points.

"It's a good group back there," Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur said following practice on Wednesday. "You know when you give it [the puck]back to them you might be able to get something out of it."

Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf leads the scoring brigade among defencemen with 28 points (seven goals), which ranks him third overall on the team and sixth among NHL rearguards.

John-Michael Liles, in his first season in Toronto, has 21 points.

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In total, six Toronto defencemen have tallied 10 or more points this season.

Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, who has 13 points on the season, said the coaches have encouraged defenders to jump up and join the offensive attack when possible, as long as it doesn't leave the team vulnerable at the other end of the rink.

At their current pace of 2.4 points a game, Leafs defencemen will easily eclipse the 139 points they posted in all of last season.

MacArthur said part of the elevated scoring is just plain good fortune, noting that Phaneuf has scored a couple of goals on slap shots from the point where the puck somehow found its mark through a maze of bodies.

"A couple of his slap shot goals have been absolute gopher holes," he said. "Some years they go in and some years you hit a pant leg. It's good they're going in this year and we need to keep that rolling."

The Leafs were put through a brisk workout on Wednesday at the MasterCard Centre following their 2-0 whitewashing of the Buffalo Sabres the night before at the Air Canada Centre.

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The Leafs will play a rematch against the Sabres in Buffalo Friday night before returning home to play the New York Rangers on Saturday.

It was the fourth consecutive victory for Toronto (22-15-5) and has moved the Leafs into sixth place overall in the Eastern Conference.

Oft-injured forward Tim Connolly did not practise with the team and Leafs officials were terming his absence as a "maintenance day."

Reporters were unable to ask Leafs coach Ron Wilson if Connolly would be available for the game Friday because Wilson decided to take a day off from the grind of his usual daily media briefings.

It is assumed that Jonas Gustavsson, who has been in net for the winning streak and notched two shutouts in the process, will get the start once again in Buffalo. But you can't be sure.

James Reimer, who has been supplanted as Toronto's No. 1 netminder by Gustavsson, has not played since a 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Dec. 31 and he'll need to get in there sometime.

That could come this weekend with the back-to-back outings against the Sabres and the Rangers.

Wilson might want to start Reimer in net in Buffalo and save Gustavsson for Saturday against the Rangers, a team he has already beaten twice this season, both times in New York.

"Everyone's just skating hard and we're in the right position, making it hard for the other team to create scoring chances," Gustavsson said. "It feels like we're tough to play against right now."

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