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David Shoalts

Toronto's two-headed monster Add to ...

There are only two places in the hockey world where this kind of hysteria can set in after exactly two games - Toronto and Montreal.

Ron Wilson noted as much when the inevitable question came up yesterday - who starts in goal tonight against the Ottawa Senators, the once-again beleaguered Vesa Toskala or alleged prodigy Jonas Gustavsson? As usual, though, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach put the blame on the media, his favourite straw man, rather than the fans.

Then again, that is a chicken-or-egg question. Is it the media which creates the goaltending firestorm because the Leafs opened the NHL season with two losses and 10 goals against or are the fans the culprits for whining on the call-in shows and in the blogosphere?

"It's Toronto and Montreal," Wilson said. "You have all you guys looking for an angle so you can spill the beans on something and be different. So let's pick on the goalie, it's the easiest. The red light goes on every time there's a mistake.

"We have some defencemen who played like pee-wee hockey players but they're not under the microscope the way our goalie is."

And not just any microscope, either. According to Wilson, "it's not a microscope, it's an electron microscope."

Well, yes, but the coach can take a share of the blame here along with everyone else. After Toskala was pulled from last Saturday's 6-4 loss to the Washington Capitals, Wilson fanned the flames by saying he would not decide who will start tonight at the Air Canada Centre against the Senators until the day before the game.

Yesterday, Wilson announced he made his decision, implied he told the person in question, but refused to make his choice public. "Whoever comes out of the tunnel first," he said. "I've made my mind up. I'm just not telling you. I'm not obligated to."

No, he certainly isn't. But a public vote of confidence in Toskala would help matters considerably. After all, almost everything Wilson said yesterday indicated the 32-year-old veteran will start and it's the only sensible move.

"It's just matter of getting Vesa comfortable again and I'm confident he's going to get the job done," Wilson said.

Gustavsson, 24, is still finding his way both around the NHL and Toronto after moving here from Sweden. He has played all of two periods in the regular season. Sure, he wowed everybody in a couple of preseason appearances but that was a total of just five periods, his work curtailed because of a minor heart ailment.

Off the ice, he seems like a nice, unassuming young fellow. He admitted to a group of reporters yesterday that he misses the Swedish version of caviar but joked that he found it at Ikea along with a bed and a couch. Oh, and he failed the written test for his Canadian driver's licence so he'll have to keep getting rides to the rink from defenceman Garnet Exelby, at least until he bones up on our rules of the road.

If Gustavsson really is the prize free-agent signing of last summer, then there is no reason to throw him into the fire, either tonight against the Senators or, even worse, on Saturday against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But it seems the playoff talk from Leafs management has the fans' expectations and even some of the media's overblown. The Leafs are better than last season but that's about all you can say.

There is no need to throw all of this on a 24-year-old goaltender's shoulders. Better to let him ease his way in with about 30 starts this season and then worry about the starter's job next season when the Leafs presumably will be a more serious threat.

In the meantime, the Leafs should stick with Toskala even if he is a little slow out of the gate. He insists he is fully recovered from groin surgery and any sensible analysis would conclude a good portion of his problems lie with the rebuilt defensive unit.

At least Toskala is laidback enough to let all of the fuss, outwardly anyway, slide off him.

"Always," he said with a smile when someone asked if he were ready to panic, too. "There's always room for panicking here."

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