Raycroft rounding into form

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:05 AM ET

NEW YORK -- A few weeks ago, the anti-Andrew Raycroft forces in Leaf Nation dismissed him as a poor substitute for Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph.

But if he keeps piling up wins for Toronto as he did in late January, the same crowd is likely to give him the kind of fierce animal nickname such as Eagle or Cujo. With three consecutive victories where he allowed just a goal, including back-to-back road triumphs over the Carolina Hurricanes and the Rangers, Raycroft has passed Belfour's 22 wins of last year's injury-shortened year.

And with five victories in the past six games, the Leafs could be a team that goes into the trade deadline later this month as a buyer.

Raycroft's 37 saves and a milestone goal for Mats Sundin pushed them past the Rangers last night, 2-1.

"Our goalie needed to be great because we didn't have much in the tank after Carolina," coach Paul Maurice said. "The coaches were concerned that (51 hits against the Hurricanes) were going to play against us. But Andrew did a lot of different things tonight, like stop three or four hard rims around the boards that helped our breakout."

Raycroft has made 13 consecutive starts since Dec. 30 (8-4-1) with Maurice still insisting he'll play the remaining 30 if the wacky Eastern Conference playoff race dictates it. Raycroft was just glad a tripleheader wasn't on tap this week.

"I'm dead, I can't wait to go to bed right now," Raycroft said. "I'm going to lie down on the plane, put my iPod on and shut it down.

"You feel proud after a game like that for a minute, then it's gone. We have another big one on Saturday (in Ottawa). It's not going to end."

Raycroft said the Leafs have offered vocal encouragement in his tough times, but he much prefers action, such as taking just five penalties in two nights where six or seven a night were commonplace.

"We've played better in front of him," Maurice said. "But keep in mind, he's young for a goalie, he has not been through a lot of campaigns and Toronto is not an easy market.

"But I think he's weathered the storm and now we're starting to see the Andrew we had earlier in the year."

A few Leafs might wink and will tell you the game was in the bag when winger Alexei Ponikarovsky made the score 1-1 in the second period. The Leafs now are 10-0-2 whenever he hits the scoresheet.

That set the stage for Ian White's breakaway pass to Sundin at 6:32 of the third, a top-shelf goal on Swedish countryman Henrik Lund-qvist. It was Sundin's 20th of the year, the 16th time he's done it in the NHL and a Leafs record 12th.

"I know there's nothing on the deke with him, he covers the area well," Sundin said. "I had a penalty shot on him this year where I didn't get it up enough. It was a good goal for me."

EXTENDS STREAK

Jaromir Jagr, who usually smells blood when the Leafs are in the arena, extended his home points streak to 12 games with an assist on Brendan Shanahan's goal. He had a team-high 10 points against the Leafs last season and had five assists in three games this year.

Toronto's only other pair of wins on back-to-back nights this season also came in a Hurricanes-Rangers set.


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