Razor looks sharp in loss

After 31 games, the Maple Leaf's Andrew Raycroft finally got a start on April 1, against the...

After 31 games, the Maple Leaf's Andrew Raycroft finally got a start on April 1, against the Sabres. (Sun Media/Craig Robertson)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

As Andrew Raycroft stood on the ice surface at the Air Canada Centre, a place that has been quite unfriendly to him at times this season, he spotted a kid up in the stands decked out No. 1 blue-and-white Raycroft jersey.

Perhaps seeing such support served as motivation for the beleaguered Maple Leafs goaltender, who described the sight of the well-dressed boy as "cool."

Perhaps he was driven by all the negativity aimed his way by both the fans and the media, who have been relentless in their criticism of a guy who tied the franchise record for goaltending wins with 37 just one year earlier.

Perhaps he was just relieved to finally get a start, his first in 31 games.

Whatever the reason, he made a statement last night, a message all his naysayers should heed.

Andrew Raycroft still can perform in this league.

Sure, his Maple Leafs had just dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Buffalo Sabres, a must-win that allowed the visitors to maintain their wafer-thin playoff aspirations.

But if it had not been for Raycroft, this one would not have even reached extra time.

"It's nice to feel like an NHL player again," he said after stopping 38 of 41 Buffalo shots before the shootout.

Raycroft had not started a game since Jan. 20, a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils. His previous win came all the way back on Nov. 9, a 3-0 shutout over these same Sabres at the HSBC Arena.

"This is where I want to be," he said. "But when you haven't played for so long, you feel left out, you feel isolated.

"It's nice to be part of it again."

Just 11 hours earlier, at the conclusion of the morning skate, Raycroft had responded to questions about being booed earlier this season by saying: "Maybe I'll get some support -- sympathy claps."

That, in a nutshell, is Raycroft. Despite entering the game with a 2-8-4 record and 4.07 goals-against average, he has refused to publicly whine or complain, acting like a professional throughout this longest of seasons.

He almost single- handedly knocked the Sabres out of the playoffs, too, keeping the Leafs even in the shootout until Maxim Afinogenov scored the winner in the sixth round.

The Sabres bench erupted the moment the puck crossed the goal line. They would, in fact, live to see another day in the wild and wacky Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Sabres, scrambling for their playoff lives, rolled up the QEW yesterday knowing they needed to post victories in their final three games in order to maintain their wafer-thin post-season aspirations.

Even under that scenario, Buffalo would need help from other teams in order to squeeze into the Stanley Cup dance, a tall order for a squad that has reached the Eastern Conference final in each of the past two seasons.

But for the time being, they'll take the two points and run with them.

"I was thinking I needed to put it in," Afinogenov said of his game winner.

Added coach Lindy Ruff: "I imagine there were a few people (watching on TV in Buffalo)."

The Leafs once again assume the role of potential spoilers when they host the sagging Ottawa Senators tomorrow. And, according to coach Paul Maurice, his team will be stoked to face their provincial rivals.

"I would think we'll be ready to play that game," he said.

"I expect there will be some added excitement in our locker room."

Perhaps the Battle of Ontario isn't dead after all.


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