TORONTO – Mats Sundin’s inspired hockey is at the forefront of a recent surge by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But the backbone of Toronto’s 6-1-1 run has been the man in net. “No doubt without him we would not have won the last few games like we have,” Sundin said Monday after practice.
Toronto’s play of late, which has some radio callers brave enough to mention the P-word, will likely fall short again of a playoff spot for the third straight season.
Toskala, however, in on his way to proving at least one positive from this season – the Leafs have a veritable, sure-bet, No. 1 goaltender.
“No doubt in my mind he’s one of the best goalies in the league,” said teammate Matt Stajan. “Not only does he give us a chance to win every night, he steals some games for us.
“You can’t ask for him to do much more.”
Between John Ferguson’s firing as GM, Cliff Fletcher’s hiring as his interim replacement and the five players with no-trade clauses who dominated headlines over the past month, Toskala’s stellar play has been somewhat overshadowed in Canada’s largest media market.
The 30-year-old Finn has made 17 straight starts and 23 of 24 and is playing the best hockey since joining the Leafs last summer.
“I feel good,” said Toskala, a man of few words. “My body feels good and mentally I think I’m ready to go, too.”
Toskala is 26-19-6 on a team that’s been in and around .500 all season long. Perhaps more surprising is that his 2.58 goals-against average is better than the likes of Carey Price, Rick DiPietro, Martin Gerber, Miikka Kiprusoff, Tomas Vokoun, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Mason, Kari Lehtonen, Olaf Kolzig, Ray Emery and Dwayne Roloson.
“He’s clearly settled into a real good groove and we’re seeing what he’s capable of,” said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice, who almost surely will call on Toskala for an 18th straight start Tuesday night against New Jersey.
His acquisition was arguably one of Ferguson’s finer moves. Although the final tally on that trade won’t be known for a few years because San Jose got a first-round (13th overall) and second-round pick (44th overall) in last June’s entry draft and a fourth-rounder in 2009. The Sharks subsequently traded the first-and second-round picks to St. Louis in order to move up and pick ninth overall. The Leafs also had to take on Mark Bell’s contract ($2 million this season, $2.5 million next season).
Still, with a career-high 53 games already under Toskala’s belt, the trade at this point looks well worth it.
“I think Vesa has proven that he’s a winner in my book,” said Sundin. “He seems to play better the bigger the games are. He always plays better as the games go on as well, late in the game and in overtime and that says a lot about a goalie.”
Toskala was booed in the pre-season by impatient Leaf fans who were quick to jump on the new goalie. Maurice may have been worried about his netminder’s frame of mind back then – it’s interesting to note that backup Andrew Raycroft got the start in the regular-season opener against Ottawa.
“It’s a tough market, especially coming from out West in San Jose, not a huge hockey market,” said Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe, who has heard his share of boo-birds over the years. “It takes everyone a certain amount of time to adjust to here and he’s done a great job for us.”
Toskala shrugged off the pre-season memories when asked to recall the feeling Monday.
“I don’t know, I kind of knew what to expect here,” said the native of Tampere. “Of course everything is new and you have to get used to it. You just have to adjust and block everything else out.”
Is he a changed man after six months in the Toronto fishbowl?
“I just haven’t let anything bother me,” said Toskala. “I know how I can play and I haven’t changed anything. I’m just sticking with what I know. As a professional athlete, you just have to be able to block some things out.”
He has come a long way from being San Jose’s fourth-round choice, 90th overall, in the 1995 NHL entry draft. He points to his first Sharks training camp and wondering how he would ever make the NHL. Steve Shields, Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff and Johan Hedberg provided the competition that year.
“It might have been one of the toughest organizations to start your career,” said Toskala, chuckling at the memory. “Maybe it took me a little longer to make it in the NHL because there were so many good goalies there. But afterwards it’s easier to say it was worth the wait.”