Leafs play-by-play man Joe Bowen hit the nail on the head the other night, after a tremendous save by Raycroft, when he remarked no matter how well the Toronto goalie played the affection simply isn’t there at this point.
The chants of “Cujo, Cujo,” and “Eddie, Eddie,” haven’t yet been followed by “Razor, Razor.”
Like coming on stage after Frank Sinatra on karaoke night, Raycroft had a tough act to follow after Curtis Joseph (1998-99 to 2001-02) and Ed Belfour (2002-03 to 2005-06) tended goal for seven seasons.
“If I can have half the careers they did I’ll be pretty happy about that,” Raycroft said Thursday after practice.
He’s got big skates to fill, says Leafs forward Matt Stajan.
“And fans here don’t give you much leeway if you’re not on top of your game right from the start,” Stajan said. “But we know what kind of goalie we were getting and he’s been that all year for us.
“He gives us a chance to win every night and that’s all we can ask of him.”
No one’s pretending Raycroft should be a nominee for the Vezina Trophy with a 2.94 GAA and .895 save percentage, but he’s been solid, especially in the second half. His career-high 32 wins are only five away from the single-season record of 37 turned in by Belfour in 2002-03 with 12 games to go on this season.
And yet the fans haven’t come close to embracing Raycroft in the same fashion.
“I don’t completely understand it,” Raycroft said before his team left for Washington. “Hopefully we get into the playoffs and win more games and they’ll warm up a little bit more. But I do understand it to a point as well, there were two Hall of Famers before me. Everyone’s been pretty spoiled the last 10 years.”
Unlike Raycroft, both Joseph and Belfour arrived in Toronto already established with proven track records. Raycroft is only 26 and is coming off a shaky sophomore year in Boston.
“You look at Ed Belfour, there’s a Hall of Fame goaltender who’s won the Stanley Cup, very much a proven goaltender,” said Leafs captain Mats Sundin. “Andrew is still a young guy, he’s still learning about the game and is still developing as a goalie. So he’s in a totally different position and I give him a lot of credit.
“Especially with what he’s been going through this year, he’s really shown a lot of toughness and grit just to hang in there.”
The low point was probably a 4-3 loss at home to Buffalo on Jan. 6 when the boos and jeers came cascading down from the Air Canada Centre crowd and Raycroft was only given mock cheers when he made a few easy saves late in the game.
“Welcome to Toronto, Andrew,” Leafs winger Darcy Tucker said Thursday.
As Tucker points out, there’s no rhyme or reason to it, and Raycroft isn’t alone.
“We’ve got two Norris Trophy candidates in here and one of them (Bryan McCabe) seems to get the brunt of the criticism as well,” said Tucker, a fan favourite. “I don’t know what it is. If I could put my finger on it maybe it would be easy to stop.”
But to his credit, Raycroft didn’t let it bother him.
“He’s pretty even keeled,” said Tucker. “He’s not one of those guys that’s get too high or too low. And I think on a team like ours, it’s good to have that kind of mentality. And he’s not a quirky guy, he just comes in here, he does his thing, he’s part of the group.”
In fact, said Stajan, one his buddies off the ice, not much gets to Raycroft.
“He’s very laid-back,” said Stajan. “I don’t think he’s a guy that would ever read a newspaper or watch highlights. He just comes to the rink every day, puts his pads on and goes to work. I don’t think he cares too much about the outside.”
After steadying himself through the tough stretch in mid-season, Raycroft has played the best he’s played all year in recent weeks.
“Being able to go through an inconsistent stretch, where I was winning, losing, winning, losing, and not playing as well as I should every single night, and to be able to bounce back from that gave me a lot of confidence,” said Raycroft. “Because it’s pretty easy when everything is going well and everyone is on your side.
“But when things go tough and you have to be able to bounce back, that’s probably what I’m happiest about so far.”
Head coach Paul Maurice patiently stuck with his No. 1 goalie during the tough times, refusing to go to backup J.S. Aubin.
“You need to play a lot of games if you’re going to be a No. 1 guy and a dominant force in this league,” explained Maurice. “The fact of the matter is that he was under more pressure in this market than he would have been in a lot of others. He would have just played through it in a lot of other markets and nobody would have said anything.
“Here he got a little more attention for some of the nights that he was off.”
Raycroft appreciates the support from his coach.
“It’s huge,” he said. “Mo instilled that right in July when I came up and met him for the first time. He’s given me a lot of confidence and I can’t say enough how much that helps when you have a guy like that in your corner.”
Still, Maurice revealed Thursday, the No. 1 job wasn’t going to be automatic all year had Raycroft not steadied himself as he has.
“I played him more, but at some point he had to play better and he did,” said Maurice. “I go back to that Florida trip in January (16-18), he won that first game for us in Tampa and probably did again in Florida.
“And that was probably the turning point where I thought he could handle anything that was thrown at him.”
Perhaps the fans will soon turn the corner as well.
“Maybe if we win a Cup they’ll like me a little more. “That’s the plan,” Raycroft said with a wink.