Telly seems set to carry load

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:12 AM ET

The Maple Leafs departed for a make-or-break two-game series in Montreal yesterday with Mikael Tellqvist driving the bus.

And coach Pat Quinn gave his strongest indication yet that the Swedish goaltender is behind the wheel for the balance of the season, whether or not the Leafs knock out the Canadiens, Atlanta Thrashers and all comers for a playoff spot.

"The way it's looking, he's going to be the No. 1 the rest of the way," Quinn said, when questioned for the hundredth time since March 11 about Ed Belfour's back woes. "We still get the information that (Belfour's absence) is indefinite and if it is, then you have to start looking at other people to take on that load. Nothing is definite, but right now, (Tellqvist) has got to think he's our guy."

Belfour hasn't been seen at the rink since a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders. Quinn and Toronto general manager John Ferguson keep saying that the back has not responded to pain-killing injections or any other treatments. Earlier this week, Belfour's agent Ron Salcer said the 40-year-old was still in Toronto, following doctors' orders to rest.

Since Belfour's injury, Tellqvist is 4-2, but a good showing in these rare back-to-back games in the Bell Centre will cement him as a bona fide National Hockey League goalie, improve the Leafs' playoff hopes and ease any doubt Ferguson has about buying out Belfour's contract next year.

Tellqvist might appear green to a lot of fans, but he's 26, hardened by four years of minor league slogging in St. John's and is ready to take on all the baggage that goes with being No. 1 on the Leafs. After being part of a gold medal at the Olympics, he's even at ease with the daily media crush, a fact of life for pro athletes in Toronto that Belfour couldn't endure.

"I understand you guys have to do your job and I do mine," Tellqvist said. "I don't feel like it's a problem. It's unique with all the attention, but it's nothing I've really strived to get in my career. I strive to play well in the rink and for my teammates. There is so much fun in the room right now, that's what you'll miss when you retire. You might as well enjoy it."

Tellqvist hopes he's singing the same tune by the end of next week, after the Leafs play Montreal the second time, travel to New Jersey on Sunday and play in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Though Quinn would be playing with fire by breaking up the roster he used in Tuesday's 3-2 win over the powerful Carolina Hurricanes, he insists he might replace the flair that newcomer Aleksander Suglobov brought to the lineup with either Tie Domi or Clarke Wilm. Defenceman Brendan Bell, who made a good impression in his first NHL game, was returned to the Marlies after a Wade Belak was granted Tuesday off to be with his wife and newborn daughter.

Quinn added to the intrigue yesterday by experimenting with Suglobov on the wing with Mats Sundin and Alex Steen. Suglobov had debuted with Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky on a line dubbed the Iron Curtain.

Defenceman Luke Richardson is looking forward to the challenge of winning two in Montreal.

"It's like a real playoff series when you open on the road and put the pressure on the home team," Richardson said. "If things don't go well for them, the pressure doubly mounts. But if we let Montreal get a momentum builder, it will be tough in there with their fans."

Tellqvist says he won't be intimidated at the Bell Centre.

"I got my first win there (Jan. 18 , 2003 in relief of Belfour) and it will always be a special place for me," he said. "I hope I can make some history in these games as well."


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