No one wants to say Curtis Joseph is down to his last strike on New Year's Eve, but 2009 will seem like an eternity if his fortunes don't change.
Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson started Joseph in the first of consecutive games last night, providing a rare chance for the 41-year-old to get his act together in what has been a disappointing return to Toronto.
If Joseph doesn't respond and starter Vesa Toskala's up- and-down trials continue, the team will have no choice but to give rookie Justin Pogge another look.
The proud Joseph was facing a 0-4-1 record going into last night's game against Atlanta, a 4.12 goals-against average and talk that the Leafs had erred in thinking he had one good season left in him.
"It just hasn't worked out," said Joseph, never one to openly discuss his problems. "There have been no lay-up games, either, but you have to find that edge. You've got to be the difference-maker in the game.
"I have no doubts in my ability, just from practice. Just in the feedback from the guys and from myself, I can tell. I move as well and I think I'm as quick. If you believe that in your heart, then it just comes down to being prepared, being focused, having that edge -- and maybe a bounce here or there, too."
Joseph struggled right from training camp, a combination of rust, poor defensive support and average play. But he was supposed to be adjusted to the backup role, having signed with Calgary midway through last season to backup Miikka Kiprusoff.
"It worked so well in Calgary, but I really didn't have any distractions," Joseph said. "I lived in an apartment by myself for three months. I was able to do it last year, which is why I thought I was able this year. Everything went so well last year, so why wouldn't I (return)?
"I knew what I signed on for here (a limited role in exchange for being back near family and friends), but at the same time you have to make sure that you're not complacent. You don't say: 'This is my last year, blah, blah, blah.' You have to go in with a mindset that you're going to play three more years."
The Air Canada Centre crowd is still in Joseph's corner, remembering his fine work in the 1999 and 2002 playoffs when the Leafs made it to the conference finals. This four-game homestand, which continues tomorrow night against Buffalo, gives Wilson a chance to use Joseph in optimum conditions and get rest for Toskala.
"I want to give Curtis a couple of games and find a rhythm here," Wilson said, "to see if he can find his game and show some confidence in him.
"He has to find a way to focus and concentrate on the job at hand and he says he's having trouble (doing that) for long stretches of time. Hopefully, he can accomplish that. He still has the skills, but with any position in our sport, it's about what's going on between your ears that's important."