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Leafs need only one NHL-calibre performance from a goalie to win Add to ...

dshoalts@globeandmail.com

This may sound like heresy, particularly when you take into account how they were booed off the ice the other night, but there is just the tiniest reason to believe the Toronto Maple Leafs are headed in the right direction.

Yes, they are still looking for their first win of the NHL season after seven games, matching the worst start in their history, and they have five more days until they play again. "Rock bottom," is where forward Lee Stempniak said the Leafs are, but there were signs of life in their last outing. All they really need to nurture that faint flame of hope is one - just one - NHL-calibre performance from a goaltender. Any goaltender.

Well, they could also quit taking stupid penalties at the worst possible times, such as right after they score or during a 5-on-3 power play. Presumably, though, that will stop sooner or later. Much less certain is the goaltending.

Felix Potvin was one of three retired Leafs saluted at the start of Saturday's 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers and you had to wonder if head coach Ron Wilson was tempted to ask if he brought his goal pads with him. Unfortunately for the Leafs, though, there is no sign of relief on that front.

Chances are that rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson (groin injury) will be on the ice today at the Leafs' practice. But the earliest he can play is the game in Anaheim against the Ducks on Oct. 26, and the game against the Dallas Stars on Oct. 28 is more likely. Wilson said he has no idea when Vesa Toskala can come back from his knee injury.

That leaves Joey MacDonald as the starter against the Vancouver Canucks when the Leafs' break ends next Saturday. Like Toskala, he has yet to register an acceptable effort.

The only goaltender to do so was Gustavsson, who lost 2-1 to the Ottawa Senators in his first NHL start. But that was also the night he strained a groin muscle.

It's not good that the Leafs are in a position where they are hoping a fellow who turns 25 on Saturday and has all of five periods of real NHL experience will bail them out. But right now it's the only hope they have.

No one else has come close to giving them what they need: a great night of goaltending to build some confidence. Knowing someone will make a save will take a lot of strain off the defencemen. It might also give the forwards enough confidence to put a few pucks in the net but that will always be a challenge with this group.

There were signs against the Rangers on Saturday that at least a few parts of the Leafs' game are coming around. François Beauchemin played his best game on defence of the season. He was not making the big mistake, and when he made a little one, he calmly recovered. Defenceman Ian White continued his excellent play and scored his first goal of the season. But the Leafs ran into a great goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, who was more than a match for their feeble offence. Then the usual bugaboo, a soft goal at a bad time, did them in.

"What's happened, with the exception of the 2-1 game, we always gave up a soft goal at critical moment," Wilson said. "What can you say?"

Shoalts 7

"You're going to be struggling to score, you're squeezing the stick," Wilson said.

"You see you're down two and now you've got to score three goals. It gets even harder, you're squeezing your stick even more."

Still, as Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle said defiantly not long after the fans sent them to their dressing room with a chorus of catcalls, it was in some respects their best game of the season.

"We kept it simple," Kaberle said. "We had better legs."

Wilson was willing to allow that it was a better game for his defencemen. He said they moved the puck much better. But he still wants much more.

"I still need our defencemen to move pucks a little quicker, identify who's open and deliver it in a hurry," he said. "We still, at times, turn too many pucks over or are too slow coming out of our end."

Okay, it may not be much, but it is a start.

SLOW STARTERS

Worst starts by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL's modern era (1967-68 to now).

Season Record Points
2009-10 0-6-1 1
1990-91* 0-6-1 1
1985-86 1-6-0 2
1982-83 1-4-2 4
1989-90 2-5-0 4
1991-92 2-5-0 4
1996-97 2-5-0 4

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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