Backup plan in works

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

The time rapidly is approaching when the Maple Leafs must choose between hurting Ed Belfour's ego and trying something to secure a playoff spot.

Belfour is not the root cause of a seven-game losing streak, but neither is he stealing the wins he once did, at least for this mistake-prone, injury-plagued version of the Leafs.

During the sustained roar that greeted Mikael Tellqvist's introduction midway through a loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday, one could sense that the crowd wasn't out to further malign Belfour, who had given up three goals, as much as to see the ball handed to his seldom-used backup.

The fans were rewarded when the Leafs nearly came back to tie the game, getting two goals following Tellqvist saves, before bad team habits returned in an embarrassing 8-4 loss. But it whetted the appetite of fans for more of the Swede, putting Pat Quinn in the tough spot of having to keep defending Belfour while Tellqvist has won four of his past six decisions.

Would Tellqvist fare any better in net with team confidence in tatters and three key players hurt? Quinn might seek that answer tonight in a crucial playoff-race game, a coveted home start against the rival Montreal Canadiens. Unless it's a back-to-back games situation, Tellqvist's name rarely comes up and until early January, starting the Eagle on a Saturday at home against the Habs was a no-brainer. But Quinn kept the door open to change.

"We're currently in that thought process, what's the right lineup to go with," the coach said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena.

"(Belfour's) interest is himself, certainly, but he has an interest in the rest of his teammates. Together, he and the coach try to come to the decisions about what's right for our team. No call has been made (on tonight) yet."

Quinn was asked again whether Belfour's slide (a 3.45 goals-against average and an .887 save percentage) reflect a fading 40-year-old or a team mired in on-ice turmoil.

"There have been lots of changes in the game and changes in our team," Quinn said. "I'm not trying to make excuses, but we've had lots of injuries around our defence. For a goaltender, that's his cadre.

"He'd say himself he doesn't like all the games he has had, but there have been marvelous games that he hasn't won. I do know that he's one of the best competitors I've ever seen.

"Yes, the clock is ticking (on him). It's just one of those measurements that athletes have to understand."

Tellqvist was flattered by the reception on Thursday, just his third home appearance. His most-recent start was Jan. 7, Hockey Day In Canada, when the Leafs beat Edmonton and he improved to 6-4-1. Tellqvist's .912 save percentage is notable, but he distanced himself from any goaltending controversy.

"It would really be fun to play on Hockey Night and be part of turning this thing around," he said. "I won't say I deserve more chances to play, because everyone deserves more chances. Ed's the No. 1 guy. I just have to take advantage of my opportunities.

"Hopefully, some of (Thursday's) cheers were for me, but it was a difficult game. It's hard for a goalie when the team is not playing 100%. You can see our confidence level is not up there right now. As a goalie, you feel that too and it rubs off on everyone."

Captain Mats Sundin is in a pickle, caught between pulling for Belfour and supporting the younger goaltender.

"It has been hard, because Ed has been a horse for us," Sundin said. "He's a (future) Hall of Famer and we all have faith in what he can do. But it's tough for Mikael to come in after long periods between games."


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