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Pogge finally makes his way to NHL

by John McGourty
The thing scouts most liked about Justin Pogge during prior to him being selected in the 2004 Entry Draft was his mental toughness. Sure, they liked his size -- at 6-foot-3 and 204 pounds, he fills the net. He's a solid butterfly goalie with good positioning, quick reflexes and rebound control.

But what they really liked was how he could handle adversity and pressure.

The Leafs made Pogge a third-round pick (No. 90) in the 2004 Draft. He won his NHL debut Monday night with a 6-2 victory against the Thrashers in Atlanta. Pogge was called up from the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies because Maple Leafs starter Vesa Toskala suffered a slight groin pull.

Backup Curtis Joseph watched from the bench as Pogge made 19 saves on 21 shots.

Pogge's performance helped the Maple Leafs to their fifth win in their last six games. The line of Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov has 20 points in the last three games. Antropov has 9 points in four games.

"Our team is starting to feel good about itself," coach Ron Wilson said.

Pogge, 22, wasn't tested too hard -- only six saves in each of the first and second periods -- and his team scored early and often in front of him. His best save was a second-period stop on Todd White.

"I was pretty nervous before they dropped the puck, but once they dropped the puck it was just another game," Pogge said. "I'm just glad I got this one over with."

"I thought we played really well in front of him, but nonetheless he made three or four saves that could have created some momentum for them, and you can see what a difference it is to have a big goalie in there," Wilson said. "The extra couple of inches helped him on a few situations where he didn't see the puck. When he's in a butterfly, all he has to do is move three or four inches and he has got post-to-post coverage."

Pogge grew up in Penticton, BC, the only child of a single mother, Annett, who will get the game puck. He had an outstanding junior career, culminating in 2005-06, one of the best years any Canadian junior player has ever had. He was the Prince George Cougars' rookie of the year in 2003-04 but was traded the next year as the Cougars fell to the bottom of the WHL standings.

Pogge helped rescue the Calgary Hitmen's season and was even better in 2005-06 when he went 38-10 with 11 shutouts, a 1.72 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Although he wasn't invited to Team Canada's summer camp for the 2006 World Junior Championship, his strong play in the Western Hockey League earned him an invite and he started all six games for the gold-medal winners.

He capped his season by winning Western Hockey League Goaltender of the Year, WHL Player of the Year and Canadian Major Junior Goaltender of the Year.

He struggled the next season, his first with the AHL Toronto Marlies, but had a good stretch during the season's last month, and then went 26-10-4 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.34 GAA last season. He was 10-9-3 on a struggling Marlies team before his call-up.

One of Pogge's most interesting games came against Finland in the semifinals of the 2006 World Juniors, where he opposed Finland's Tuukka Rask, the Maple Leafs' first round pick in the 2005 Entry Draft. Obviously the Maple Leafs were not impressed with Pogge's split season between Prince George and Calgary because they spent their 2005 first-round pick on Rask.

But Pogge outplayed Rask in Canada's 4-0 victory. Rask had been beaten, 5-1, by Canada and Pogge in the opening game of the tournament, as well. The Maple Leafs traded Rask to the Boston Bruins on June 24, 2006, to acquire established NHL goalie Andrew Raycroft.

Pogge's advancement has been a little tough on Finnish goalies all over. He pushed Rask out of his way, replaced an injured Toskala and defeated Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen in his NHL debut. Rask, in turn, outplayed Hannu Toivonen in Providence so the Bruins traded Toivonen to St. Louis and he's now back in Finland.

It also doesn't bode well for Joseph, 41, in his second term with the Maple Leafs. Joseph has played in only seven games this season, going 0-4-1 with a 4.33 GAA and .838 save percentage. He was asked if he's considering retiring.

"I was pretty nervous before they dropped the puck, but once they dropped the puck it was just another game. I'm just glad I got this one over with."
-- Justin Pogge

"That's a good question (but) no," Joseph told the Toronto Star. "I feel good, and I've been through streaks where you get four starts and when you play 10 times in a row. The major thing is focus, get into a rhythm, and from there, things should turn around."

Carbonneau's confident at Christmas -- "We're right where we want to be," Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau told the Montreal Gazette.

That might surprise some people because the Canadiens have fallen 10 points behind the Northeast Division-leading Boston Bruins.

Carbonneau might have added that the Bruins are not where the Canadiens want them to be, but the Canadiens are close to their pace of a year ago when they had the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens have 42 points after 33 games, while they had 37 at this point last season. They have three more goals at this point than last season and have allowed one fewer. Their goals-against average ranks fourth in the NHL. Alex Kovalev, despite a career-high 19-game goal drought, is two points off last season's pace.

The Canadiens' power play is the biggest problem, falling from the NHL's best to 28th this season. The next biggest problem is that 27 of the final 49 games will be played on the road. The Canadiens start a four-game road trip Saturday in Pittsburgh and continue to Florida, Tampa Bay and New Jersey.

No miracles needed -- Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk twice last week predicted the Senators are on the verge of a major turnaround.

"I think the media is going to call this a miracle turnaround, not me," Melnyk said. "To me, I know where we're going. We're going to grind out every game. But I can see those headlines come March, 'Big miracle turnaround,' and all of that.

"We don't need a miracle. We just need to go play, and we have the talent."

Melnyk made the remarks while hosting more than 100 children at a skating event Sunday at Scotiabank Place. The Melnyk family and Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa (CAYFO) donated four game tickets to each child and their families.

Melnyk also joined with Scotiabank CEO Rick Waugh and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum to donate 1,000 tickets for the Dec. 23 World Juniors pre-competition game in Barrie, Ont., between Finland and Kazakhstan.

With the assistance of the OHL Barrie Colts organization, the donated tickets were distributed to various Barrie-area charities and hospitals, including Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Kidsport, McDonald's charities, Seasons Centre for Grieving and the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Melnyk talked to his players Saturday night after they defeated the Dallas Stars, 5-4. He knows the next few weeks will be tough, but the Senators have to make a move because they entered Tuesday last in the Northeast Division, 23 points behind the Bruins, and 12th in the Eastern Conference, five points behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes. That puts them in danger of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1995-96.

This will be a tough time to accomplish a turnaround. The Senators have the second-worst road record in the NHL, and they began an eight-game road trip Tuesday night in Philadelphia; six of their opponents currently hold a playoff position.

Northeast dominance fading -- What constitutes a winning record in the NHL, what with teams getting a point for a loss in overtime or shootouts? The Northeast Division is 62-42-20 against Eastern Conference teams, including those in their own division. Some say that's a .500 record, and those who disagree cite the point gained in losses past regulation time. Thus, the Northeast has 144 of a possible 248 points in those games, or 58 percent. That sounds like a winning record.

The Northeast is 21-10-7 against the Atlantic Division for 49 of 76 possible points, or 64 percent; 18-16-6 against the Southeast Division for 42 of 80 possible points, or 53 percent. The Northeast is even better against Western Conference teams, going 21-12-5 for 47 of 76 possible points, or 62 percent.

Against the Central, they are 7-4-3 for 17 of 28 points, or 61 percent; against the Northwest, they are 8-4-1 for 17 of 26 possible points, or 74 percent; and against the Pacific, they are 6-4-1 for 13 of 22 possible points, or 59 percent.

On the other hand, if the season ended today, Boston and Montreal would be the only Northeast teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Boston leads the Eastern Conference and Montreal is the fifth-best team. The Atlantic Division would place four teams -- Rangers, Flyers, Devils and Penguins -- while the Capitals top the Southeast and the Hurricanes entered Tuesday's games ranked No. 8.

News and Notes -- Marc Savard moved into a tie with Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Semin for the League-lead with a plus-20 rating. Savard's 29 assists rank third behind the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, who has 40, and Sidney Crosby, who has 33. ... Buffalo's Thomas Vanek went a week without a goal, surrendering his three-goal lead over Philadelphia's Jeff Carter, who entered Tuesday with 25 goals to Vanek's 24. Vanek's nine power-play goals still are tied for second, behind injured Anaheim right wing Teemu Selanne, who has 13. Vanek leads the NHL with 15 road goals. ... Boston's Phil Kessel is tied for second with 8 goals against division rivals. ... Michael Ryder has caught fire for the Bruins, playing on a line with David Krejci and Blake Wheeler. Ryder had 2 goals and 7 assists Nov. 14 and now has 12 goals and 12 assists. He's tied for the NHL lead with 5 game-winning goals. ... Wheeler and Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski are tied with St. Louis's Patrik Berglund for the lead in rookie goal scoring with 11. Toronto's Nikolai Kulemin is tied for 10th with 6 goals. ... Boston defenseman Matt Hunwick is tied for fourth among rookies with 11 assists. Grabovski is tied with Wheeler for ninth with 9 assists. Wheeler and Grabovski are tied for fourth among rookies with 20 points. Hunwick is 10th with 14 points. ... Toronto defenseman Luke Schenn is second among rookies with an average ice time of 20:55 per game. ... Boston's Milan Lucic leads the NHL with 133 hits ... Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov is tied for sixth with 82 blocked shots. Buffalo's Toni Lydman is eighth with 80 and Montreal's Roman Hamrlik is 10th with 79. ... Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson is third in the NHL with 36 takeaways ... Senators coach Craig Hartsburg wants Jason Spezza on the ice to take faceoffs. Spezza ranks eighth in the NHL by taking 33.2 percent of his team's faceoffs, and he's won 51.4 percent of those 580 faceoffs. ... Derek Roy ranks 10th in taking 33 percent of Buffalo's faceoffs.

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