Desperate Times Require. . .Pogge?
It's a little early for a "last stand." And certainly, the Maple Leaf management and coaching staff are trying hard to downplay suggestions the team is in desperation mode.
But understand this. There was serious, lengthy internal debate as to whether to give blue-chip goaltending prospect Justin Pogge the start last Saturday night against Philadelphia.
In the end, the choice was made to go with Andrew Raycroft, who responded well, albeit in a 3-2 defeat.
But putting Pogge in after consecutive starts by No. 3 goalie Scott Clemmensen would surely have been a statement about how Leaf management views the club's current plight.
Now, with the team sitting at 13th in the Eastern Conference, it heads into arguably the most challenging road trip of the season starting tomorrow, a three-games-in-four-nights slate that includes games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, to many a Cup contender this season.
A last stand? Maybe.
It's Toronto's first trip to California since the season before the lockout, strange, really, considering the Leafs used to be out on the west coast all the time when they were part of the Western Conference. The Leafs might have Vesa Toskala for some or all of these games, but have both Raycroft and Clemmensen on the trip just in case. But starting with tomorrow night's game against the surging Ducks, if the Leafs are simply hoping the Finnish goaltender will solve all their problems, they're going to get whacked and good.
Anaheim may be the toughest team in hockey right now. The Ducks are likely to physically challenge the Leafs in the same way the Flyers did on Saturday night. There will be a call for the Leafs to dress Wade Belak, which means he'll have to fight George Parros, who was beaten by Nashville's Darcy Hordichuk Tuesday night at the Honda Centre.
But the Leafs will need more than Belak to respond. They need their entire lineup to play with some group toughness, something that wasn't apparent last Thursday in Pittsburgh when Darcy Tucker was speed-bagged by Jarkko Ruutu and Mark Bell had his orbital bone fractured by Ryan Malone. Anaheim, meanwhile, is starting to roll with Scott Niedermayer back, and last night against the Preds potted four goals in 8:07 after going into the game having scored fewer goals than every other team other than Edmonton.
Twenty-four hours after the Ducks, the Leafs get the L.A. Kings. The Kings are the NHL's worst team this season, but they can score and have a bunch of talented young forwards, including Anze Kopitar. So after having to be willing to get their noses dirty in Anaheim, the Leafs have to turn around and be ready to play a solid, simple game up the road in L.A. if they hope to get a win.
Two nights after that, it'll be a jaunt to Silicon Valley and a date with a Sharks team that has been lousy at home this season but is a very good defensive team that won't give up much. So the Leafs will have to play a tight game and hope to win a squeaker.
That's three games in four nights, but three very different assignments. The club took the day off yesterday and will return to the practice rink today.
A last stand? Well, they'd better come up with at least one win, particularly with team president Richard Peddie along to watch.
Or Pogge's first NHL start may not be far away.