On Saturday night, the Leafs played host to the Canucks. ACC patrons were treated to a ceremony celebrating the Canadian Armed Forces (a Hockey Day in Canada theme) and the stench of incense from the blue and green clad pot-smoking hippies. Some negotiating wizardry landed myself and three friends in the lower bowl where we were joined by a big chuck of the patchouli set. The atmostphere in the rink was great during the game and my one Canucks friend took all of the ribbing during the warm-up, the pre-game ceremonies, the first period, and the second period very well. Being the nice Toronto fans that the three of us are we decided to go easy on him during the third period. The Leafs decided to play the compliant host and followed suite.
The score notwithstanding, this was one of the most enjoyable nights out at a hockey game since Game 1 of the 2000 series against the sens. After the game about 300 fans surrounded the LeafsTV set to serenade Jody Vance, get pictures with the lovely host, and trade good-natured chants. It was probably confusing to the Canucks to see so many Leaf fans joining in the Raycroft chants but their drug-addled minds probably concocted some sort of explanation. The friendly atmosphere was a testament to the welcoming Leafs crowd and the Canucks fans that realized that despite large numbers they would probably have been routed in a fight (plus the pot makes them too apathetic to get worked up into a frenzy). sens and habs fans do not get the red carpet rolled out for them and I would guess that things are different for Canucks fans in Stabmonton but it was good to see two large groups of fans get along and it made for some good natured banter.
The big lesson that I learned from this game was: do not trash talk early. Earlier in the season I mocked Tim Thomas and the Bruins' defence only to see them shut down the Leafs in four straight game so I guess I should be grateful that the Leafs do not play the Canucks again until sometime in the 2044-45 season. Well, that's actually the second biggest lesson that I learned during the game. The most important revelation concerned Andrew Raycrfot the Leafs # 1 goaltender. Most people are probably expecting an expletive-laced, unhinged rant about the six goals and by most people I mean the Canadian government. But you will not find that here. I waited to write this because I am sure that if I had been able to type something up post-game it would have resembled the worst of internet message board fodder. Instead, I think I have solved the enigma that is the Andrew Raycroft situation.
The biggest issue is the recent history of the goaltending position for the Leafs. Raycroft does not have the luxury that Felix Potvin had of taking over the number one spot after Allen Bester, Peter Ing, Mark LaForrest, and a washed up Grant Fuhr had tended the net at the Carlton Cash Box. Raycroft has had to wrest the mantle of # 1 from the memories of Curtis Joseph and Eddie Belfour, two goalies who (last year notwithstanding) regularly stole games for the Leafs that they had no business winning and allowed the team to play a post-lockout run and gun game when most of the league was playing some version of the trap.
What is sometimes lost in all the hemming and hawing about Raycroft is that both of the aforementioned goalies came to Toronto as established stars. They had gone through the learning curve, they had honed their skills almost to perfection, and they had earned their fearsome nicknames through their success in the battle that is the playoffs. Raycroft has his own nickname, Razor, but he has not earned it in the same fashion as the other two. His potential (2003-2004 Calder Trophy Winner) has kept many in his corner, including myself, while his struggles in Finland during the lockout and last year have given many pause to question the trading of Tuuka Rask for a seemingly washed up goalie. The truth is that there is a long line of goalies that were voted the best at the WJHC and never made it and this year's performance by Rask was definitely underwhelming. Any suggestion that the deal has been a bust is premature to say the least.
The Leafs have a young team that will only get younger after this year. Raycroft is still working on perfecting his game. He already has 20 wins at the break. He could hit 30 easily. That is a very good figure for a goalie that only won 8 games in the last season before the lockout. He has a manageable three year contract at $2M/year after which the Leafs will be able to re-sign him if his development continues or well placed to chase a free agent goalie to give Justin Pogge (then 23) a little more time to develop if he is not already set to take over the reins. Raycroft has the game to be an elite goalie in the NHL and his Calder Trophy is proof of that ability. He is coming off two disastrous years but has shown in many games the level to which he can aspire. The difficult thing for Leaf fans and the team's management will be whether they are patient enough to see if he can find the consistency that the Leafs need and he needs to properly lay claim to his nickname.