Backups are Leafs' No. 1 foe

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

That idled labour force known as NHL backup goaltenders has found steady work where the Maple Leafs are concerned.

For the fifth consecutive game, the lucky Leafs likely will face a No. 2 tonight because the visiting Chicago Blackhawks used starter Nikolai Khabibulin in a conference game against the Colorado Avalanche last night, which should leave Patrick Lalime to play this evening.

It might even be six a row for the Leafs on Tuesday, pending Kari Lehtonen's groin injury, which saw Johan Hedberg take over in net Thursday for the Atlanta Thrashers.

SCHEDULE MATTER

"Hey, we're the highest scoring team in the league (before last night) and maybe they want to save their No. 1s," centre John Pohl quipped yesterday at Lakeshore Lions arena. "But it's really to do with the schedule. We've just come up on a lot of teams who've been playing back-to-back."

So far, the Leafs haven't taken full advantage of the understudies, such as Buffalo Sabres' Jocelyn Thibault and Florida Panthers' Craig Anderson, with an overall record of 2-2. But winger Alex Steen doesn't think the Leafs are getting off easy with lesser names constantly introduced in the other net.

"The backups are counting on these chances to show what they've got," Steen said. "They're very prepared by the time they play us."

If you count the injured Ray Emery as Ottawa's present No. 1 ahead of the hot Martin Gerber, the only star-power names the Leafs have tangled with so far are Cristobal Huet of Montreal and Carolina's Cam Ward.

Any smugness that Toronto coach Paul Maurice had Thursday morning when he learned that Florida's Tomas Vokoun had hurt his ankle vanished after the first period. The fired-up Anderson made 11 saves, the Leafs hit two posts and Florida led 2-0.

"That's the funny thing about wishing for goaltenders," Maurice said. "We got Dubie (Wade Dubielewicz) against the Islanders, but he played well against us last year. Thibault's (career) numbers say to me that he is a No.1. So I never get that great feeling about playing a backup.

"A backup knows it's going to be his big game and especially in Toronto, they want to put on a show."

As for the Leafs' plan in goal tonight, they likely will return to Vesa Toskala, just the second time the new man has made back-to-back starts in this roller coaster October. As Thursday's game developed, Toskala was getting into a comfort zone with his positioning and communicating with his defence.

This is the Leafs' first game against a Western Conference team and Toskala has a record of 4-2 versus the Hawks.

Toronto held the Panthers to 28 shots after a few wide open games with shots in the 40s and 50s and little in the way of coverage. The Leafs gave up 16 goals the previous three games.


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