“I have some ruby red slippers,” Curtis Joseph was saying last night.
He was only half-joking. This summer one of the great goalies in Maple Leafs’ history clicked his heels and signed with the club as a free agent, but it took a late December evening spent with the Atlanta Thrashers to get a conclusion.
It turns out you can go home again, if only for a night.
Joseph got his first regular season win in his second tour of duty with the Maple Leafs, his 134th with the club in a rousing 4-3 overtime win at Air Canada Centre. It was his 450th NHL win.
At 41, Joseph is one of a trio of Leafs, Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov are the others who remember the halcyon years of Pat Quinn and yes, Mats Sundin.
Now Quinn coaches the junior national team, Sundin gingerly warms up in Vancouver and the Leafs speak of the playoffs using the past and future tense but never the present.
Now, in his final days in the league, Joseph hints that leaving the club in 2002 in a fruitless attempt to win a Stanley Cup didn’t work out.
“This is my dream job,” he said, his sweaty head covered by a baseball cap. “Sometimes you don’t realize it until you’re gone. It’s the best place in the world for me to play.”
The Leafs and Joseph were blitzed early. The Thrashers got a power play goal from Bryan Little and then another from Jim Slater but the Leafs stiffened and outshot the visitors 13-1 for the remainder of the period. By the time the stanza was over, Nikolai Kulemin
had scored his seventh goal off a mind-boggling feed from Mikhail Grabovski
. Energized, the two would dominate the rest of the night.
The Leafs evened things when Lee Stempniak beat Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg and took the lead with Jason Blake’s eighth.
But despite a huge territorial advantage - the Leafs would outshoot Atlanta 47-32 - the visitors scored the only goal of the third, a power play marker by Colby Armstrong
Still, the Leafs were gifted with a man advantage that spanned the third and overtime and 33 seconds into the frame, Pavel Kubina rocketed his eighth goal of the year past Hedberg who was neatly screened by Dominic Moore.
There were plenty of excellent performers, Stempniak, Ian White, Hagman and the resurgent Jason Blake to name a few, but the night belonged to Joseph who was serenaded with calls of ‘Cujo’ whenever he made a big save.
“Oh, yeah, you hear it” he said. “You block out the negative stuff. You hear the good stuff.”
It was his night, a welcome relief from a three-game losing streak, but a win for posterity in a season that probably won’t have much.
Joseph is, and always was, an admirable, likable figure. His path to the NHL, from a kid who didn’t even play, through house league north of the Toronto and NHL without ever being drafted, is one of the game’s best.
What made him special was his tenacity. Sweet-faced outside the net, he was Cujo when put in the cage. No goalie battled so tenaciously to stop the puck without the benefit of what anyone would call a teachable style. He won on will, won 134 regular season games like Tuesday’s on will and used the same commodity to gain another 32 post-season wins.
“He’s a great guy to be around,” said Kubina, owner of the game winner. Cujo is over 40 and he battles every day. It was a great game for Cujo and I’m so happy we got it done.”
The willingness to battle, from a 2-0 deficit, to conquer the rust that comes with only eight appearances in the club’s first 36 games, is the defining element of his career.
“It’s something I’ve had to do throughout my career and throughout my life,” he said." Joseph will start in Buffalo New Year’s day as starter Vesa Toskala gets his first back-to-back break.
There was some bad news. Jeremy Williams, a pleasant surprise with five goals over nine games fell awkwardly into the boards and injured a shoulder. Jonas Frogren blocked a shot in the ribs in the third and did not come back. Their status will be determined later.
For now, the hockey world is back in what once was a familiar orbit. Fast skating and determined, the Toronto Maple Leafs were backstopped by Curtis Joseph to victory.
That story stands, at least for two more days