Who's saving whom?

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

MONTREAL -- In the whirl of the Maple Leafs' giddy 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens lies a question.

Is Ed Belfour still Ed Belfour? You know, five o'clock shadow at 1 p.m. Stops shots.

The stat sheet from last night's game says yes.

Kind of.

Belfour, playing his first back-to-back road games since the end of the 2003-04 season, was coming off an admittedly sub-par Friday night in Buffalo, a game won by the Sabres, 5-2.

In the first period last night, the Leafs were hit with four penalties while the Canadiens were tagged just once. Eight of Montreal's shots came with the man advantage. The Leafs were outshot by a staggering 18-4 in the first period and 38-24 overall and Belfour was magnificent.

"After the first, who knows what the score could have been? It was so one-sided," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said.

"He was amazing," said Alexei Ponikarovsky, a goal-scorer last night. "He stopped so many shots. We were trying to kill them off but still, he came up big for us."

Belfour has been at times brilliant and fallible. With Belfour playing 14 of 18 games, the Leafs entered last night's contest 25th in the league's goaltending standings. Belfour was lugging around what for him was an elephantine 3.58 goals against average and an .886 save percentage.

More nagging than the stats were the bad goals.

When they begin a decline, however marginally, goalies still make as many great saves. It's the easy goals that act like dye in the washwater.

Belfour is, of course, not the only goalie to struggle in the penalty-laden, shot-happy NHL but since he is the singularly most important player on the Leafs, his standing is most vital.

The Leafs are immensely flawed. Their third pair on defence is combustible, they don't defend well and they haven't developed a team-wide chemistry. Eric Lindros has contributed nine goals but has been far from dominant and still looks sluggish. Jason Allison has been plodding and ineffective.

All that and more can be washed away, of course, with stellar goaltending and Belfour's career in Toronto is proof enough of that. His sporadic problems this season explain why the Leafs are floating around the .500 level.

So which Belfour would Quinn get? Well, both.

After Belfour orchestrated a scoreless first period, Bryan McCabe's shot on a power play and a nice shorthanded effort by Ponikarovsky staked the Leafs to a 2-0 lead in the second.

But, Belfour unaccountably sagged.

The Canadians climbed back on a softie, a shot from near the blue line off the stick of Andrei Markov that hit Belfour in the pads but found its way into the net.

The fourth goal of the game, the one that tied matters 2-2 off the stick of Michael Ryder, was nearly as grievous.

"I didn't see the first goal and the second goal I should have had," Belfour said. "Not to make any excuses, but if I had been wearing my old pads, both the goals would have been stopped. It went right off the inside of the pad and that extra inch makes that difference."

It was a firefight after that.

Maybe Belfour's up-and- down play can be attributed to the bevy of shots that now rain down on him when the Leafs kill penalties.

"I think it has to do with the rules and how the game is being called," Belfour said. "It seems like we're on the penalty kill a lot."

Others blame the club's inability to consistently defend. Like the coach.

"He now is trying to play defence," Quinn said. "He's trying to do a lot of other jobs because, quite frankly, we're not doing those jobs around him."

All true. But in the new NHL, the most important player isn't the one who scores the goals, it's the one who stops them. How long it takes Ed Belfour to get his groove back is precisely the amount of time it will take the Leafs to find theirs.


Photos