Playing Tellqvist is paying dividends

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

Mikael Tellqvist played some fine goal last night in the service of the team he will soon inherit, the Maple Leafs.

He stopped 35 shots and shook off two flukey goals to give the Leafs a desperately needed 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Mike Commodore and Eric Staal scored goals 3:03 apart to lift the Hurricanes into a 2-2 tie before Jason Allison's game-winner with about five minutes to play.

The win keeps the Leafs' narrow playoff hopes alive.

So that was nice.

But no element of the Maple Leafs' largely disastrous season is larger than the ongoing transition of Tellqvist from sub to starter.

"The season's not done yet, but as far as it goes since I've got the starting job, I've been feeling good," Tellqvist said. "I was nervous at the beginning but after that I settled down a bit."

The Leafs' two brightest prospects are goalies, but Tuukka Rask and Justin Pogge are years away from Toronto. If Tellqvist emerges as a viable starter, general manager John Ferguson Jr. can direct his cap money toward patching up the club's long list of pressing needs.

That said, it has not been a smooth transition for Tellqvist, a lower-case prospect in being drafted 70th overall in 2000 and who still commands something less than resounding confidence within the organization.

He was passable last season, and what should have been his breakthrough American League season last year really wasn't despite a 24-16-4 regular-season slate.

The club turned to Jean-Sebastien Aubin, and while they won a playoff round, Tellqvist no longer was the man.

He is 26. By that time, Belfour had established himself as an NHL regular with the Chicago Blackhawks.

This season, despite long stretches of erratic play from Belfour, Leafs coach Pat Quinn only turned to Tellqvist 22 times.

Scouts talk about looking for one talent in prospects, and finding that with Tellqvist isn't easy.

He isn't big, maybe 5-foot-10. Compared to pterodactyls such as Florida's Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury of Pittsburgh, he physically is unimposing.

"Most goalies in this league are big guys," Tellqvist said.

"I feed off my quickness a little bit. That's my game, my reflexes. I have to play big even though I'm small."

He did that last night.

He moved with an easy economy. Shots died in his pads. There wasn't any one save that defined his night. They were all the same. With a ferocious effort, his defencemen kept Tellqvist's crease as vacant as a runway at Pearson.

The first goal he gave up came on a shot that ratcheted around his crease. Tellqvist stopped Commodore's point-blank shot but ended up kicking the puck over his own goal line.

The game-typing goal was cheesy as well, with a shot hitting Staal in front of the net. Stall merely had to tap in for his 42nd goal of the season.

While it keeps the Leafs' marginal playoff hopes intact, the result is as much about next season as this one.

Slowly, methodically, little Mikael Tellqvist is building his portfolio to fill the vacancy sure to happen when the Maple Leafs decide against renewing Belfour's contract next season.

SORE BACK

The ever-helpful Belfour has made that decision easy enough, first by wildly erratic play, then by pulling himself from the lineup because of his chronically sore back.

For the Leafs, keeping Tellqvist in the lineup is the right move, for the short and long haul.


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