Gustavsson or Toskala?

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

Whether or not he starts tonight, we're about to see what Vesa Toskala's goal pads are stuffed with.

Is he cut from stubborn Finnish stock, famous for surviving winter hardships? Or will he be reindeer meat for opposing shooters and fickle Maple Leafs fans?

Faster than expected, Toronto management is approaching the goaltending crossroads that became inevitable after signing Jonas Gustavsson and Joey MacDonald to push Toskala in his contract year.

Emerging from his worst NHL season and springtime surgery, Toskala is 32, the Leafs are accelerating their recovery, and it's getting time to determine who will be the goalie who leads the charge.

Hopes that Toskala would get into a quick groove hit a bump at the end of the NHL exhibition schedule. His ugly .800 save percentage in the regular season includes a tough-luck overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens, framed by a three-goal first-period against the Washington Capitals and seven goals on 24 shots in his final pre-season game.

To his credit, Toskala doesn't run for cover in bad times when marauding cameras and microphones follow him to his stall. He could hint that he's one of a handful of Leaf goalies to win 30-plus games in a year, among 120 NHL victories that should cut him a bit of slack with critics.

"We're only two games in, it's going to be a long season," he said, with that bewildered look he gets at all this negative fuss. "I'm sure I can do good things. I feel good, my body feels flexible."

That hasn't translated to the ice at times, as on Saturday when the first Capitals shot clanked in off his glove, one of three on eight shots in the first period. But he and Gustavsson worked hard with specialist Francois Allaire yesterday, before and after practice, then came off together, adding to the mystery of tonight's starter.

Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators shouldn't be a turning point of the season, yet it's getting that kind of attention for the winless Leafs. Lose again and there will be three off days of further goalie debate on top of the Cup champion Penguins coming in.

Instead of Toskala getting comfy at this stage and head coach Ron Wilson choosing a no-pressure date for Gustavsson's first start, the coach was defusing a goalie controversy yesterday.

"You'll just have to come to the game and see who comes out of the tunnel first." Wilson teased.

General manager Brian Burke wasn't going to steal the coach's thunder.

"Ronny didn't tell me anything he didn't tell the media," Burke told AM 640. "I can live with either result."

Burke did point out that Gustavsson is no raw rookie who will be sent to the Marlies to get regular playing time.

"In my mind, he's ready," Burke said.

On that note, it's more risky going back to Toskala in front of an antsy home crowd, where another early goal could bring 19,000 fans down on him, not to mention the bad vibes rippling through the bench.

Tonight at least, Gustavsson would be better received, making his first NHL start, coming off a decent mop-up job against the Caps, which partly inspired three third-period Leaf goals.

"If the coach wants me to play," Gustavsson said, "I'll do everything I can."

Swedish club teammate Rickard Wallin endorsed both goalies, but assures that his countryman can handle The Show.

"To me, he looks like the same Jonas from last year," said Wallin, when he dominated the Elite League with a 1.96 goals-against average. "It was a similar situation; he didn't start the year for us (former Blue Reinhard Divis was the starter). He worked hard and made sure he was ready when he got the chance and there was no turning back.

"He was excited to play in that Washington game -- I don't know how excited you can be when it's already 3-0 -- but we want to play better defensively for both goalies."

Wilson might have tipped his hand when he said yesterday: "We don't question anything Vesa's done, we're just going to put in the guy who is playing best," which based on 16 saves on 19 shots Saturday and three shutout exhibition periods, would be Gustavsson.

"We had some defencemen who played like peewee hockey players, but they're not under the microscope like the goaltenders. I could have had (Hall of Fame goalie) Turk Broda, it's 3-0 after the first period and you're going to make a change.

"This isn't about Jonas, this isn't about Vesa, it's about trying to win hockey games."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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