by Scott Burnside
Toronto - Not one television, vcr or piece of electronics has been disturbed. His off-ice behaviour, as far as anyone can tell, has been exemplary. When the Air Canada Centre fans booed, he smiled good-naturedly and gave them the benefit of the doubt.
And when the dust clears on the first half of the Toronto Maple Leafs season after Tuesday's home date with Boston, there is one reason and one reason only that anyone connected with the team can offer even a hint of a smile, and that man is Ed Belfour.
The man who was the Leafs' obvious second choice to tend their goal, the man who was run out of Dallas with whispers that his reflexes were shot and that his game was gone, has not only dragged the Leafs back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race he has legitimately garnered talk of a Vezina Trophy and Hart Trophy.
| Belfour won over Toronto quickly after a shaky preseason. |
Graig Abel Photography
Jose Theodore eat your heart out. And for that matter, Curtis Joseph, too. With much the same lineup as a year ago when the Leafs tied a franchise record with 100 points, Belfour loomed as a great question mark at the start of the season.
And coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in a decade, a 21-27-11 record and 2.65 GAA, Belfour's play early on this season did little to generate much optimism.
After posting a season-opening shutout versus Pittsburgh, Belfour missed four games to injury and then won only twice in the next nine games.
It was the worst start for a Toronto team in the four-plus years since Quinn took over and it seemed to justify the many critics who savaged Leafs management in the off-season for failing to lure significant free agents to Toronto.
Or, in the case of Joseph, keep him in the fold.
But since a lopsided 6-3 loss to St. Louis Nov. 9, the Leafs have gone 17-6-2-1 to vault back into the thick of things in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
Over that period Belfour has played in 23 of those games allowing more than three goals only once. His five shutouts are tied for the NHL lead, his .930 save percentage is second among NHL starters, his 1.98 GAA third. Eerily polite, Belfour says he expected to be booed given Joseph's popularity. He wasn't surprised there was a period of adjustment, adapting to new teammates and vice versa, he said.
The reality is Belfour's play has neatly covered a series of troubling holes throughout the Leaf lineup. In twin home victories over conference rival New Jersey, for instance, Belfour stopped 88 of 89 shots.
Robert Svehla has provided a surprising upgrade from the popular Dmitry Yushkevich with 18 points and a solid plus-13 rating, Tomas Kaberle is among the league's most productive defencemen, and Ric Jackman, acquired from Boston, has been a pleasant surprise along the blue line, another successful reclamation project initiated by Quinn.
But Bryan McCabe's drop-off in production and uneven play remains a crucial concern.
After popping 17 goals a year ago, tied for second amongst NHL defenders, McCabe has but one goal this season. He must return to form if the Leafs are to challenge for their first Stanley Cup in 36 years.
Likewise Karel Pilar has hit a roadblock in his development after last year's strong playoff run as a rookie and has been back and forth from St. John's. Jyrki Lumme struggled early but seems to have recovered his from. Still, at age 36 he is better suited to a less demanding role.
Up front, the team has been led by Alexander Mogilny.
The laconic Russian sniper with a dry wit that sometimes escapes both teammates and the media, eschews responsibility and then leads by example on the ice.
His 42 points leads the team and he is on pace for his best season in eight years.
| Mats and his mates are hoping to have more to celebrate in the second half. |
Graig Abel Photography
Until captain Mats Sundin was felled by a shoulder injury in late December, he and Mogilny were running neck and neck for the team scoring lead as well as forming a dynamic penalty-killing tandem.
But Sundin will be sidelined into the second week of January if not longer with a shoulder injury, among a handful of regulars who have succumb to injury in recent days creating a scenario reminiscent of last year's playoff run when the Leafs surprised the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators in grueling seven-game series in spite of injuries to key personnel.
Among those sidelined, injury-prone Mikael Renberg, at one point the most prolific point producer on the team, now out indefinitely with an horrific infection in his hand and arm that at one point prompted talk of amputation and death.
Shayne Corson followed a disappointing start to the season (5 points in 21 games) with a groin injury that has kept him out of the lineup for a month. Darcy Tucker, the team's most pleasant surprise a year ago when he finished second in team scoring, is just now emerging, and slowly at that, from a season-long funk that sees him carrying a minus-10 rating.
Alyn McCauley, who inspired a legion of Leaf fans with his gritty, determined work in the playoffs (15 points in 20 games) has followed up with just one goal thus far.
Likewise Travis Green has been a disappointment after a strong playoff with just nine points.
If there has been a bright light among the forward units not named Mogilny it has been the play of the Three Desperados, Tie Domi, Jonas Hoglund and Robert Reichel.
Okay, no one calls them the desperados but there is a desperate quality to their play and for going on two months now they have been the team's best, most consistent performers.
The trio's production has been a welcome tonic, especially given the criticism leveled at both Reichel and Hoglund by the media and fans. Still, as the first half of this season begins to fade from memory, the Leafs can say a quiet prayer of thanks to the hockey gods for the arrival of Ed Belfour and another in they hopes they won't need to lean quite so heavily on him in the second half.