Pogge takes his lumps

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

On the Air Canada Centre ice, Justin Pogge didn't stop as many as he would have liked, but if nothing else the would-be Maple Leafs goalie of the future showed last night that he can take his shots.

Pogge's regular-season home debut capped an interesting and eventful day for a youngster who is, like his team, very much a work in progress.

It began with his general manager, Brian Burke, telling the radio masses that Pogge "has not earned the right to be here" and that the team was "force-feeding this kid into the NHL."

It continued with his defence abandoning him in the first period, leading to three Buffalo Sabres goals. Predictably, that prompted some razzing from the Leafs "faithful," a throng starting to lose patience with watching the team stumble through a fourth consecutive dreadful season.

Through it all and ultimately the 4-1 loss to lower his record as an NHLer to 1-3, at least the kid was still standing and willing to take his lumps.

"I think I probably deserved it," Pogge said of the booing.

And as for Burke's comments, the 22-year-old wasn't about to argue. "That's the truth," Pogge said. "If it was a playoff race, you don't want to be throwing a young guy in there. I'm happy to get the shot."

He'll get another one too as Leafs coach Ron Wilson will go right back to Pogge for tomorrow's game against Columbus, in part because starter Vesa Toskala needs a rest following an MRI to check out a bothersome hip.

In fairness to Pogge, if it sounded like his general manager was hanging him out to dry (he wasn't), it was nothing compared to what his teammates did in the opening 20 minutes.

Two of the Sabres first-period goals came on defensive zone lapses, the third after Pavel Kubina was easily beat to a loose puck for a goal by the Sabres' Daniel Paille.

Pogge, who admitted to being nervous and "swimming around a little" early, settled down to make 13 saves in the second period while looking more confident in his crease.

Ultimately though, it was yet another night in which a Leafs goalie failed to win a game for the team -- you can count the occasion that has happened this season on less fingers than it takes to make a fist.

But if Pogge benefits from the experience, what's another February loss in a season going nowhere?

"This is great for him to go through this," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "If it was easy, I'd be worried about him being overconfident.

"This is going to force him to work harder on his game. It's good earlier in his career to have it hard."

Normally going with a goalie like Pogge in such a situation would trigger an inquiry with management in Carolina, Florida and Pittsburgh, teams that are in what is becoming a heated fight with the Sabres for the final two Eastern Conference playoff spots.

The last thing they want to hear two months before the end of the season is another team messing with their chances in the name of experimentation.

Given Toskala's one night on, three nights off routine that has become his norm, it would be tough to make that argument stand, however.

From the Leafs perspective, the team has nothing to lose by giving Pogge as many starts as possible now. While Burke is accurate in saying Pogge has done little to merit his shot, in the same breath he isn't about to write the prospect off either.

"I don't know if (the fans) are expecting that he's the saviour of the franchise," Wilson said.

"We're just trying to develop a goalie. Everybody's just got to be patient and let him grow at his own rate."

Even if it means those fans have to suffer through the growing pains.


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