TORONTO – Welcome to the Air Canada Centre, kid.
Rookie goaltender Justin Pogge wasn’t even a full period into his first start on home ice before getting jeered by Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
Even though the score was 3-0 Buffalo at that point, Pogge could really only be faulted for one of the pucks that got by him. But that didn’t keep the crowd from cheering sarcastically when the 22-year-old goalie made an easy save.
“I think I probably deserved it,” said Pogge. “It’s just one of those things.
“Things don’t go your way all the time. You’ve got to keep your head down and keep playing.”
He played much better in the final 40 minutes, but most of the damage was already done as the Sabres skated away with a 4-1 victory on Tuesday night.
One of the most important thing the Leafs organization hopes to establish over the next two months is whether Pogge is more than just a former prospect. He’s now made four NHL starts and will be back in goal when Columbus comes to town Thursday.
At this point, it’s too soon to make a final judgment on him, which is why coach Ron Wilson would like the fans to be a little more patient.
“I don’t know if they’re expecting the way it’s written up that he’s the saviour of the franchise,” said Wilson. “We’re just trying to develop a goalie. I think (the jeers) just showed some of the frustration.
“Everyone’s just got to be patient and let him grow.”
Pogge is currently being given an opportunity that Brian Burke feels he hasn’t really earned. The Leafs GM bluntly said as much on a Toronto radio station Tuesday, noting that the organization is “force-feeding this kid into the NHL.”
It was an assessment Pogge agreed with after making 26 saves in the loss to Buffalo.
“That’s the truth,” he said. “If it was a playoff race, you wouldn’t want to be throwing a young guy in there. I’m happy to be getting a shot at it. I’m just fortunate for the situation.”
Drew Stafford led the way for Buffalo with two goals. Daniel Paille and Matt Ellis also scored for the Sabres (30-22-6), who moved into a tie for fifth in the Eastern Conference.
Pavel Kubina replied for the Maple Leafs (21-26-10).
The Sabres looked lacklustre in a loss to Carolina on Sunday and didn’t come out with much energy in this one either.
If not for some great play by Ryan Miller, the Leafs would have had an early lead. The Sabres goalie made a few fantastic saves with his team a man short, sprawling around the crease and keeping out a couple sure Toronto goals.
When the Sabres finally pushed back, they managed to get some pucks behind Pogge quickly. The taunts from the crowd came after Ellis made it 3-0 by slipping a weak shot behind him.
“That’s just a joke goal, you shouldn’t let that in,” said Pogge.
At the other end of the ice, Miller saw the whole thing as character-building. It took him a couple years to seize the No. 1 job in Buffalo and understands what a young goaltender needs to go through.
“You’re going to learn a lot more from nights like this than you’re going to learn, even from the American League,” said Miller, who finished with 27 saves. “For him to get some experience right now is going to only help him. He’s got the tools, he’s got the size, it looks like he’s starting to read some plays, he made a few nice saves tonight.
“But to be a consistent goalie at this level, you have to learn, you have to be in the nets, you have to be right out there. He’ll come along and they’re giving him every opportunity. He’ll be fine.”
Even Pogge acknowledged that he felt better after coming out in the second period and stopping all 13 shots he faced.
During that stretch, Kubina made it 3-1 with a power-play goal that had Leaf fans starting to think comeback. The chances of that ended with Kubina in the penalty box during the third period when Stafford got his second goal of the night.
It all added up to another loss in a season filled with many of them. The game did expose Pogge to some of the difficulties that come with playing for a franchise that is trying to rebound.
“The last four years we’ve had some tough times here,” said forward Matt Stajan. “The fans let you know, no matter who you are.”
And fortunately for Pogge, he’s not headed straight back to the American Hockey League this time.
He’s going to be around for the rest of this homestand and will get at least one more chance to make a better impression.
“This is great for him to go through this,” said Wilson. “If it was easy, I’d be worried about him being over-confident. This is going to force him to work harder on his game and that’s what he needs to do.”
Notes: Wilson said that and MRI on starter Vesa Toskala’s groin came back negative … There have been 138 NHL coaching changes since the Ruff was hired … Buffalo is 10-3-1 at Air Canada Centre since the lockout … Blake has 11 goals in his last 14 games for Toronto … Maple Leafs forward Boyd Devereaux was scratched for a second straight game … Buffalo was missing four injured players: Thomas Vanek (jaw), Maxim Afinogenov (groin), Henrik Tallinder (shoulder) and Paul Gaustad (upper body) … Announced attendance was 19,287.