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Sports Curtis McElhinney finds his groove as backup for the Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Curtis McElhinney made his only start of the season on Wednesday night and looked sharp as the Leafs turned back the Detroit Red Wings 6-3.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Curtis McElhinney does not have to look far should he need a shoulder to lean on when discussing the travails of being a backup goaltender.

McElhinney, currently plying his understudy role with the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs, only needs to call his younger sister, Alana, the second member of the McElhinney family to tend goal at a competitive level.

Alana, now a 26-year-old practising law in Calgary for Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, one of Canada's top business-law firms, was the backup goaltender for Bemidji State University, a Division 1 NCAA school tucked away in northern Minnesota.

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She graduated in 2012 and acknowledges that there aren't many brother-sister goaltending combos, even in a hockey-mad country such as Canada.

"I loved it naturally and I loved it because of [Curtis]," Alana McElhinney said over the phone on Friday. "It's always been kind of inspirational to see how well he was doing, how much he loved to play and the fact at the end of the day he was able to make a career out of it."

Having his younger sister follow in his goalie skates did not sit well in the McElhinney household in Calgary when 10-year-old Alana said she wanted to play hockey and in goal. At first her parents suggested she try other positions.

"I don't think my parents were too happy about it," Curtis McElhinney said. "Honestly, that stuff [equipment] costs quite a bit of money, so for a parent it's probably hard to understand [why a child would choose goaltending].

"And you need a big garage and a big basement to air all that stuff out."

Now in his 13th NHL season – and second with the Leafs – McElhinney inked a two-year contract with Toronto for $1.7-million (U.S.) in July.

He made his only start of the season on Wednesday night and looked sharp as the Leafs turned back the Detroit Red Wings 6-3.

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Most of the time McElhinney's seat is planted on the end of the bench with Frederik Andersen getting the lion's share of the work.

Andersen is expected to be back at his regular post Saturday night when the Leafs renew the Battle of Ontario in Ottawa against the Senators.

The most McElhinney has played in a season was 32 games in 2014-15 with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He also had stops in Calgary, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Ottawa and Phoenix.

Nobody ever sets out to be a backup goaltender and it was a bit of a bitter pill for McElhinney to digest when his NHL career was starting.

"Obviously everybody set their sights on being the guy and early on that was probably the biggest challenge, trying to relinquish that thought," McElhinney said Friday after practice. "It's a challenge. It's tough to kind of go two or three weeks sometimes and not play a game and all you're seeing is practice shots. So mentally it can be stressful at times.

"I think I've found my groove now after all these years, which is nice. I'm a little bit more at peace with it I would say."

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Having a ringside seat to watch the Leafs juggernaut this season is not too bad an option. Toronto is riding high, off to a 6-1 start with a league-leading offence – 34 goals in seven games.

On Friday, online gambling house Bodog installed the Leafs as the 8-to-1 favourites to win the Stanley Cup. The rest of the league is starting to sit up and take notice what is transpiring in Hog Town.

Brad Marchand, the truculent Boston Bruins forward, tweeted: "At what point do that Maple Leafs have to start playing Matthews 1 vs 5 to make it fair for other teams??"

It was likely a gentle dig at Auston Matthews, the Leafs' superstar in the making who has six goals this season and has been drawing rave reviews for his inspired play. Earlier this week, Washington Nationals coach Barry Trotz compared the sophomore to Mario Lemieux.

"It was pretty funny," Matthews said of Marchand's digital proclamation. "It's cool, I guess."

Toronto coach Mike Babcock, who likes to divide the season into five-game segments as a barometer of success, said it is far too early to start planning any ticker-tape parades.

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"All that stuff is fluff," Babcock proclaimed, reminding reporters that he coached the Detroit Red Wings when they won the Presidents' Trophy in 2005-06 after finishing with the NHL's best regular-season record only to lose in the playoffs in the conference quarter-final.

"It's hard to win the Cup, it's darned near impossible, so let's not worry about that," Babcock said about the attention the Leafs are attracting. "Let's try to get into the playoffs, let's do that by winning a game in Ottawa."

As for Matthews, Babcock said his young forward has the ability to mute the adulation.

"I think all those things are great, but I don't think it's affecting his life," said the coach. "I think that's just noise. And the more you win, the more the noise is positive. And the more you lose, the more the noise is negative.

"But you probably shouldn't listen when it's negative and you probably shouldn't listen when it's positive."

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