Rangers ready a rude welcome

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Through the opening four games of this infant NHL season, Maple Leafs fans have turned booing Toronto goalies -- or one, in particular -- into a national sport.

To be fair, much of the negative reaction has been justified, given the odorous nature wafting from some of the goals that have found their way into the Leafs net.

Let's face it. If Vesa Toskala continues this sub-par play much longer, maybe he'll soon be hearing those same jeers from the Marlies fans at Ricoh Coliseum, where many frustrated observers feel he belongs.

In any event, if Toskala and his teammates feel their moribund offence, struggling defence and leaky netminding will suddenly turn around tonight when they face off against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, they are in for a rude Big Apple awakening.

With the Rangers set to unleash both their No. 1 goaltender and their top agitator on the visitors, the Leafs might well be starring in their own off-Broadway production of Les Miserables by the time the evening is over if they don't get their act together in a big hurry.

Winless thus far, Ron Wilson's troops will have to deal with all-star goalie Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes and the Pickering Pugilist, Sean Avery, in the corners. Neither is an attractive prospect for a Leafs team attempting to shed the shackles of a tough start, one that has seen them manage just one of a possible eight points.

"(The Leafs) have always been a hard-working team," Lundqvist said last night. "Sometimes it's harder to play against a desperate team."

Maybe that was the thinking of Rangers coach John Tortorella when he opted to rest Lundqvist yesterday against the Anaheim Ducks and went with backup Steve Valiquette. Nice of him to save Lundqvist for the "desperate" Leafs, wasn't it?

Truth be told, Tortorella just wanted to give the minute-munching Lundqvist a rest, especially with back-to-back games ahead.

Besides, Valiquette did well for himself, blanking the Ducks 3-0.

As the three stars were being announced, the capacity crowd inside the World's Most Famous Arena began chanting "Vall-ee, Vall-ee" in honour of Valiquette's 18-save performance.

Imagine that, Leafs fans. Cheering a backup goalie. Cheering any goalie. Foreign territory, isn't it? Maybe you'll get that chance when the groin injury plaguing Jonas Gustavsson has healed.

Until then, all bets are off. Even where Joey MacDonald is concerned.

Make no mistake. Lundqvist is not infallible. He had one of those run-and-hide moments on Thursday when he allowed a 90-foot shot by the Washington Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom to beat him.

"It builds character," Lundqvist said.

Speaking of characters, the always intriguing Avery made his 2009-10 regular season debut last night after coming off a medial collateral ligament strain of the right knee. As usual, he did it with flair, registering an assist in the third period.

"I don't know how many shifts he played, but he played well," Tortorella said. "He worked hard and forechecked. On the power play, he was effective.

"Little by little, I'm sure he wants more ice time but I have to worry about the flow of our game and I think I have a good thing going with our top two lines playing really well."

The Leafs and Rangers are going in opposite directions. The Rangers have won four consecutive games, while the Leafs have lost four.

Count on Lundqvist and Avery doing everything in their power to make certain that trend continues tonight.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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