One sign of a good team is getting contributions from every player on their roster. The New York Rangers have reason to be confident they are one of those teams as backup goaltender Stephen Valiquette may get the start Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Rangers (10-2-1) lead the NHL with 21 points and are trying for their second five-game winning streak of the young season. Nikolai Zherdev had a goal and an assist in the third period as New York held off Atlanta 3-2 on Thursday, continuing his fast start since being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets via trade in the offseason.
"He's so good with the puck," Thrashers goaltender Kari Lehtonen said of Zherdev, who is tied for the team lead with five goals and 12 points. "It looked like he was going to go all the way to the other side, but he was able to put it up very quickly before I even knew it. He's just one of those guys that you don't want to let alone in front of the net. Usually something bad happens."
While Zherdev has been a focal point for the Rangers, Valiquette is sort of an unsung hero. Getting only two starts thus far behind workhorse Henrik Lundqvist, Valiquette has been sharp in winning both and is in line to make his first start since making 21 saves in a 1-0 shootout victory over the Maple Leafs on Oct. 17.
"I know that my job and my role on the team is to be ready at all times," the Ontario native said after that win. "I have to add value to the team, no matter if I'm starting or I'm supporting."
Playing the Maple Leafs appears to give Valiquette a little something extra. He is 3-0-0 with a 1.29 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in three starts and five lifetime appearances against Toronto, including a 2-0 mark with a 1.45 GAA at the Air Canada Centre.
Toronto (4-3-3), though, has found an offensive groove after stumbling to a 1-2-3 start. The Leafs have won three of their last four games, including a 6-5 shootout victory at New Jersey on Wednesday as Matt Stajan had two goals and an assist before Niklas Hagman scored the winner in the fourth round of the shootout with a backhand that beat Martin Brodeur.
"I decided I was going to try something else and I felt pretty confident with it," Hagman said, "I didn't want to put snow in his face. That's why I felt a little bad. I didn't want to celebrate too much. I didn't want to be cocky."
The Maple Leafs have been aggressive offensively during their four-game surge, averaging 40.5 shots. They also have been highly effective on the power play, converting 8 of 23 chances in that span - two coming from defenseman Mike Van Ryn.
"Mike has played very well," Leafs coach Ron Wilson told the team's official Web site. "He's been one of the more pleasant surprises on the blue line for us."
Stajan has totaled three goals and three assists in a four-game point streak after failing to register any in his first five games.