As backup plans go, it wasn't perfect, but Hannu Toivonen isn't complaining. Nor are any of his Boston Bruin teammates, because the finishing act provided by the rookie goaltender last night was far more satisfying than those that had twice dented team spirits earlier in the week.
Turning back nearly everything the Toronto Maple Leafs shot at him, the netminder from Finland stepped in for the injured Andrew Raycroft and provided the backbone in a 2-1 win before 15,917 at the TD Banknorth Garden, Boston's first triumph in seven Northeast Division games and a much-needed step forward in the aftermath of overtime losses at Carolina Wednesday and Toronto Monday.
''It's a huge win," said captain Joe Thornton, whose deft feed from behind the net just 1:12 into the third period set up Sergei Samsonov for a goal that put the Bruins in front, 2-0. Having watched his club squander chances down the stretch at Carolina and Toronto, Thornton had seen the Leafs dominate in the middle period, only to have the Bruins' fortunes saved by Toivonen, so the second score appeared large.
But nothing in this rough ride of an early season has been easy for the Bruins, and this affair would be no different, because the Leafs peppered Toivonen and finally cashed in at 17:23, the always-present Eric Lindros poking one home on the power play. A collective groan could be heard throughout the building, the patrons no doubt fearful of the late-game heartache that had befallen the Bruins twice in days prior.
''It wasn't easy, by any stretch," said coach Mike Sullivan. ''But I thought it was important for our guys to respond -- and they did."
Just barely, perhaps, but when you've lost five of your previous six games, who is going to quibble over that? Certainly not Sullivan, and definitely not his players. The fact that it was a backup goaltender -- with just three previous NHL games under his belt -- who provided the leadership mattered little to Sullivan, who is point-blank when it comes to the importance of having a good man between the pipes.
''It's not important, it's essential," said Sullivan, though the star of the show was still in a deflective mood after his 36-save performance.
''Even if they had a lot of shots, the guys made my job easier," said Toivonen, who was forced into action after Raycroft strained his hamstring late in Wednesday's overtime loss at Carolina. ''I think our defense did a tremendous job, simply clearing the way so I could see the puck so well."
The majority of Toivonen's best saves were shots he had full view of. His best work came during a second period in which the Leafs outshot the Bruins, 20-4, and the brightest stuff took place moments after Travis Green was sent off for holding an opponent's stick. Toronto's top-rated power play flexed its muscle, but Toivonen flashed his pad to kick out a blistering shot by Alexander Steen from the right faceoff circle, then he stuffed a shot from the point by Tomas Kaberle. When he turned back a few more bids on another man-advantage minutes later, it appeared the Bruins were going to make Jiri Slegr's first-period power-play goal stand up.
''He really kept us in the game in that second period," said Samsonov, who showed his appreciation of being placed on the No. 1 line by working free for Thornton early in the third. Kept together and put on a line with Green -- Glen Murray was with P.J. Axelsson and Dave Scatchard -- Thornton and Samsonov have great chemistry and it befuddled Toronto goaltender Mikael Tellqvist, who stepped in to give Ed Belfour a night off.
Thornton held the puck, but he couldn't hold it for long. That much, Samsonov knew.
''I had to go to the net and if somebody picked me up, he'd be open," said Samsonov. ''Joe's so good down low. He's got such great vision."
It was Samsonov's sixth of the season and his fifth in the last four games, but in no way did it signal the end of the game. Not with the high-scoring Leafs and not with the spotty Bruins. Committing sloppy penalties in the final 20 minutes and losing grip has been a constant theme for this team, so much to Boston's anguish, Toivonen was called for tripping Jeff O'Neill at 7:10 and Tom Fitzgerald got whistled for holding at 15:59. Toronto's crisp power-play unit got a fifth chance and this time it cashed in with Lindros's eight of the season and, yes, a familiar script was unfolding.
Only on this night, there was a new twist: a backup plan with a quick glove and a flashy pad and something else, too.
''Comfort," said Toivonen, who stopped six of seven shots in the third period. ''It's all about feeling comfortable out there. I was tonight."
He may have been the only one in the building who was.