ST. PAUL, Minn. – When Justin Pogge stepped between the pipes for Toronto on Tuesday night, so began an apprenticeship program for the young goaltender who is considered the Maple Leafs’ top prospect.
Pogge was called up earlier this week and was scheduled to return to his AHL club after the game regardless of how he performed. After watching his NHL defencemen fail in front of him time after time against the Minnesota Wild, he may not be in a hurry to be back.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard had two goals and an assist as the Wild skated right through and around Toronto’s defence in a 6-1 victory over the Maple Leafs.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have to show a lot more pride in their performance defensively than they are showing,” Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. “You should dig in a little harder when you’ve got a young kid playing goal.”
The 22-year-old Pogge, who managed only 15 saves in his second career start, had virtually no chance on all four goals in the second period thanks to sloppy play in front of him, which has plagued Toronto all season long.
“Yeah, it’s over,” Pogge said. “I can’t change the fact that I let in six. Oh well, (forget) it. It’s time to go on to the next one.”
Marc-Andre Bergeron, Cal Clutterbuck, Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan also scored for the Wild, who were last in the NHL in even-strength goals coming into the night. But Minnesota got all six in five-on-five play against the Maple Leafs.
“That’s huge,” said Brunette, whose Wild travel to Edmonton and Vancouver this weekend. “For us, to feel good that we can score some goals and make some plays and gain some confidence before we go to a couple of tough places to play, getting even strength goals is huge.”
Minnesota native Jason Blake scored for Toronto, which lost for the eighth time in nine games and 12th time in its past 15.
“Right now it’s a garden full of weeds and I need to pick some weeds,” Wilson said. “It’s as simple as that.”
It is probably not a coincidence that one of the games Wilson wanted Pogge to play in was against offensively challenged Minnesota.
The Wild entered the night 24th in the NHL in total goals and had only 62 scores in five-on-five. But they have been scoring better lately.
In their first 41 games, they averaged 2.4 goals a game. They have averaged 3.8 in their past six.
Three of Minnesota’s four second-period goals came in a three-minute burst.
Bergeron started the binge when he walked right in past sleeping Toronto defenders, took a feed from Bouchard behind the net and beat Pogge through his legs.
Eric Belanger followed with a steal at centre ice and then fired a late crossing pass to Bouchard on a two-on-one for an easy one-timer.
Just 45 seconds later, the 37-year-old Nolan won a foot race with defenders Luke Schenn and Ian White to a puck that should have been icing and slipped a backhand pass to Mikko Koivu on yet another odd-man rush. Koivu fed Brunette coming in on the weak side, who he scored on a wide-open net.
Bouchard capped the period with a breakaway goal, dizzying Pogge with a double-deke before slipping the puck between his legs for a 5-1 lead.
“You can’t blame him,” said Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom, an all-star who made 27 saves and had a nice view of all six of those goals. “He made the saves he could. We scored three, four, five goals on empty-netters.”
Wilson said the performance didn’t change his opinion that Pogge will be “a great NHL goalie.”
“This is a good experience for him, how he handles getting kicked around like that,” Wilson said. “We’ll see how he plays in the next couple games with the Marlies. But it will be a good experience for him.”
Notes: Maple Leafs D Mike Van Ryn played for the first time since Dec. 18. He was out after suffering his second concussion of the season, but was cleared by doctors to play earlier this week. … Brunette played in his 500th straight game. “As a kid I hated to miss any kind of activity with friends,” Brunette said. … It was Bouchard’s first two-goal game since Dec. 1 against Colorado.