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CuJo Loved His Second Stint In T.O.

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
At 42, the end has been written for Curtis Joseph as a Maple Leaf.

Leafs GM Brian Burke told the Toronto Sun on Tuesday that the club “was going in a different direction.”

There was no announcement from the Joseph camp, but he has often said he only wanted to play in Toronto. That likely means a retirement announcement from one of the most charismatic players to wear blue and white.

In Frost\Nixon, a winning stage play and later a movie, both interviewer David Frost and his unrepentant foe, former president Richard Nixon, realize that no matter how many hours of tape the two combine on, the dominant memory will be of one critical clip. That’s the nature of the sound bite. It’s what you remember.

If Joseph decides to retire, he will not be remembered for his rocky final year, a campaign that brought grotesque statistics, a 3.57 goals against average and .869 goals against average.

He will instead be remembered for his moment. March 29, starter Martin Gerber bumped official Mike Leggo and earned his ticket out of the game in the 59th minute. Joseph came in and stoned the great Alexander Ovechkin in regulation. Then he stopped every shot in the overtime. He stopped two more in the shootout and when Ovechkin skated in on him, he was so cowed he barely managed a shot. The Air Canada Centre shook. It was just like old times.

There were two milestone moments for the Leafs this season, two instances where former giants took one final magnificent bow. On Feb. 21, Mats Sundin was feted with a long ovation on his return to Air Canada Centre and replied with the winning goal in overtime. The other night brought Joseph’s stoning of the Capitals. The two teams could have played for five more nights and the Caps would not have scored. He was that dominating.

Reality soon returned. Joseph allowed five goals in 27 shots in Buffalo a few nights later.  Burke’s decision is rooted in common sense.

The Leafs need a goalie who can challenge Vesa Toskala. Yes, the Finnish goalie was injured, but he played poorly without a formidable challenge for the number one job. Toskala thrived on a challenge the year before as he outplayed Andrew Raycroft and he was constantly pushed with the San Jose Sharks. The ability to mount that kind of challenge had long since passed Joseph by.

Along with the Dallas Stars and perhaps two or three others, the Leafs continue to pursue Swede Jonas Gustavsson, a 24-year-old who was the best goalie in the Swedish Elite League.

There are limited options available in free agency, but after another mediocre season, Justin Pogge, the Leafs’ long anticipated goaltending prospect continues to spin his wheels. His contract is up.

Joseph, meanwhile, leaves as one of the most exciting Leaf goalies and one of the most productive. His 138 regular season wins put him fourth behind Turk Broda (302), Johnny Bower (220) and the goalie he displaced, 160-game winner Felix Potvin. His total of 270 regular season games is the fourth highest in Leafs history.

His 32 wins put him third in playoff victories and his eight shutouts trail only Broda’s 13.

Joseph accomplished all these feats in just five years with the Leafs and four as a starter  but it was the dominance that he flashed that will be remembered. He was a difference maker in the two runs to the final four in 1999 and 2002, a dynamic goalie without the size that allowed so many of his contemporaries just to square up and let the puck hit them.

That Joseph was never drafted into any level of hockey, either junior hockey or the pros made his story that much more unlikely. His nickname, given to him by a friend at Notre Dame College, spoke to the fierce competitor that toiled behind the mask.

Joseph, not enamored by the direction of the club under Pat Quinn, bolted the Leafs for the Red Wings in 2002. After the Wings lost in the next set of playoffs, he was tossed aside for Dominik Hasek.

Leaving, he has said, was a mistake. This season offered one more chance to improve on his legacy. Instead, he left the lasting memory of one magical night.

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