One of the keys to any good postseason run in hockey is the way a team can jump on the back of its starting goaltender. With his outstanding 24-save effort Monday night in the Sharks 2-1 victory over Edmonton, Vesa Toskala, who entered the postseason having never played in a playoff game, earned his sixth consecutive victory. If there had been any doubts in the minds of NHL fans and critics about how Toskala would perform in the playoffs, they were certainly erased tonight.
“He’s a big reason why we are where we are,” said Kyle McLaren. “He made a save in the first period on a two-on-one that saved our butts. That got the guys fired up a little bit. Anytime a goalie is back there that can stop the first, second and third shots and if he has to even the fourth shot, it’s huge. He has played tremendously for us. I think he is a big reason that we are up 2-0.“
Toskala entered tonight’s game boasting the third best goals against average in the League with a 1.84. The Finnish netminder sat just behind Anaheim’s Ilja Bryzgalov and Carolina’s Cam Ward, who have both shared time in net, something Toskala has yet to do.
“He (Vesa) didn’t start to play good in the last couple of weeks,” said Steve Bernier. “It started way before that. With about 10 games left in the regular season he just started playing unbelievable. He has kept playing like that the whole time and he has been very important for us.”
There is something to be said for how much a team can depend on its goaltender. For Jonathan Cheechoo, he’s seen Toskala for years now. The League’s leading goal scorer has nothing but faith that Toskala can lead the Sharks to the Stanley cup.
“He has played amazing for us,” said Cheechoo. “Coming down the stretch he came up big for us. He won a lot of games. That is what being a goaltender at this level is all about. I got to watch him in the minors, like I have said before, and he was doing the same thing then that he is now. Sometimes he would face 50 shots and it would be a one goal game. Whether we won or lost he always kept us in there. I think he is used to that and he has proven it up here.”
There were a handful of saves on the night that Sharks fans can simply look back and say, “wow!” Some of Toskala’s best saves of the evening came in the final five minutes. One in particular, with three minutes left on an Ethan Moreau shot got the crowd buzzing, rising the HP Pavilion faithful to their feet.
“It’s a great crowd behind us and we have just been really good at home for the last four months,” said Toskala. “Not a lot of teams have been stealing games from us here.”
In games played out East recently it hasn’t been uncommon to see 7-6 or 5-4 games. It’s a testament to how well Toskala and the entire Sharks blueline has been playing throughout the playoffs and is a big reason why they are 6-1 in the two series.
“They are playing really good,” said Toskala of his defenders in front of him. “Just like in the first game they were blocking a lot of shots. Edmonton played a lot harder tonight and we were able to beat them.”
Perhaps the best defensive play of the night came when the Oilers earned 1:42 of five-on-three time in the second period. McLaren, Scott Hannan and Mark Smith pulled off one of the best penalty kills in recent memory, as both Hannan and Smith were stuck on the ice without sticks, but still somehow managed to escape both penalties unharmed.
“The boys stepped up and did it for us,” said Joe Thornton
of the five-on-three. “I have never seen that happen. Two guys break their sticks and the poor goalie and the one guy with a sticks really have to control it. They just did a great job of getting in the shooting lanes and obviously Vesa made some huge saves.”
“I was sucking wind a little bit after that,” added Toskala. “Thankfully they couldn’t score. It was really hard for the guys without sticks and I was just hoping that they would not allow any back door passes or anything like that.“
Now down 2-0, Edmonton is looking at an uphill battle. They must win four of the next five games in order to advance to the Western Conference Finals. If Toskala has anything to do with it, that won’t be happening.
“Tonight’s game was a battle,” added the netminder. “Edmonton came out a little bit harder but still we played great as a team. In Edmonton the crowd is going to be crazy. We just need to suck some of that energy from them.”
“Our game is to play good defensively and try to have the defense lead to good offense. Vesa has been playing unbelievable and he’s always making good saves and is always keeping us in the games. We’ll need that from here on out.”
Without a question, defense stole the show tonight at HP Pavilion. Now it’ll be off to Edmonton for games three and four starting Wednesday. Sharks fans will get to see which team and which players will be up to the test.
I bet Vesa Toskala will.