Veil of secrecy behind mask

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:50 AM ET

Pssst! Andrew Raycroft was the starting goalie for last night's Maple Leafs home opener. But, don't tell anyone -- it's a secret.

Yes, the circus, otherwise referred to as our beloved hockey team, is back. The Leafs lost 4-3 in overtime, but half the fun was just getting there as Paul Maurice played his own version of Where's Waldo yesterday when it came to revealing his starting goalie.

Earlier this week, Maurice told the media to attend the skate, noting that it would then be obvious whether he had chosen incumbent Andrew Raycroft or Vesa Toskala, to start the opener.

"It's not a big deal to either of us," Raycroft said, as dawn turned towards high noon in the shootout at the Air Canada Centre. Of course, only he and Toskala hold that minority opinion in this city. There were so many media at the morning skate it looked like someone had yelled: "Buffet, anyone?" Camera guys, web guys, CBC mikes and a couple dozen pairs of eyes belonging to reporters and columnists locked onto Toskala and Raycroft like stink on a skunk. Can we say: "Obses-s-s-sed?"

As he sat at his locker later, Toskala would mutter, "It's only one game." But, this is Toronto. There is no such thing as "just" one game.

There haven't been two goalies this close in ability vying for No. 1 status since Felix Potvin was snapping Grant Fuhr's jock strap. Traditionally, in the morning skate, the first goalie off the ice is that night's starter. Raycroft skates to the bench door but ... no! He takes a shot of Gatorade. The netminders squat at centre. Stretch. Giggle.

The mind wanders ... and, hey, who was that masked man disappearing down the aisle: "Right now, I'm starting," said Raycroft, noting he'd been told Tuesday night. Mostly he can't figure out what all the fuss is about. Minutes later, Toskala plods into the dressing room adrip in sweat. Disappointed? "It's going to be a long season and I"m just going to be patient like I've been for the last seven years." But he doesn't look happy.

"I'm not going to tell you who our starting goaltender is," Maurice said. I've heard Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment likes the clandestine approach but the last time I saw anything like this Harold Ballard was fitting Roger Neilson for a brown paper sack.

Fortunately, at game time Raycroft arrives wearing merely his goalie mask. "He had a good camp and he looked positionally better (than Toskala). I thought he'd earned the right," Maurice finally explained after the game.

He looked good stopping Mike Fisher's shot from the high slot early in the third. He stopped Chris Kelly on a breakaway. Actually if Raycroft had shown up in disguise it wouldn't have been difficult to figure out who it was - all you had to do was listen to the crowd.

USED TO JEERS

They gave him the first Bronx jeer 7:53 into the first period -- or just after Andrew Vermette's opening goal. "It's part of the deal when people are that passionate. They're feeling the ups and downs of the game just like we are," Raycroft said. After playing a full year here you just go with it. You get used to it."

Maurice couldn't fault Raycroft for either of the first two goals. "They were tough, about 16 inches off the ice," Maurice said, "clearly he was not loved early but I thought he settled in."

But, then came Dany Heatley and the season's first disappointment. "Yeah, it went off a leg or something. Two of their guys, two of ours. I don't know; it snuck through somehow," said Raycroft.

So, who starts tonight in Ottawa, someone asked playfully at Maurice's post-game press conference? In keeping with his new vow of silence over who that might be, Maurice declined to say. "You will learn," he said earlier, and I could've sworn he had the look a man about to pluck the wings off a pesky fly, "to appreciate the consistency."


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