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Dealing from strength

Raycroft returns a happier man

There is something about being on a roll, as Andrew Raycroft is right now, that makes a goalie think that, yes, size matters. The former Bruins goalie, who will be back at the Garden tonight when his Maple Leafs take on his former Bruins, has strung together four straight wins, owns eight victories (tied for third in the NHL as of yesterday morning), and quite frankly, is living large.

"The puck doesn't look bigger, but I feel bigger," said Raycroft, 26, dealt to the Leafs in June, the Bruins then in the midst of monumental changes that thus far have produced minuscule results here in the Hub of Hockey. "When the pucks are going in, man, it's like you've got so many holes. But then, when you're in a groove, it's like the pucks are just hitting you, you don't have to work as hard, you've got it all covered . . . and the job's just fun."

Most of all, Raycroft stressed during a phone interview upon arriving in town last night, it's the "fun" part of the equation that has changed in his new environment. He was very much at the center of a season that burned to the ground here in 2005-06, and when the smoke cleared and the ashes were swept into the bin, the former NHL Rookie of the Year was cashiered for Tuukka Rask, a high-profile Finnish goaltending prospect who can't do anything at the moment to help the Bruins recover from their early free fall.

Raycroft, after logging a near-sensational rookie year in 2003-04, slumped badly from the start last season, and never recovered.

"I don't think anyone felt more upset about that than I did," he said, reflecting on his disappointing 8-19-0 season. "I wasn't completely horrible all the time, but I'd give up some bad goals, and when I did, it just would magnify, snowball. It was really, really frustrating."

Bad goals, bad scores, and eventually a bad ending. Raycroft injured a leg. He lost his job to Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen. A short visit to Providence (where Toivonen now must attempt to revive his own game) never led to the renewed start he was hoping for when he ventured to the minors for a quick course in game reconstruction and confidence building. In fact, it all led him to ask for a trade at the time, a request he reiterated when the season came to its merciful end.

"We talked to Mike [O'Connell] before the Olympic break," Raycroft recalled, referring to the former Boston general manager who lost his job at the end of March. "It didn't look like I'd be playing. I went to the minors, expecting to get back in, and that didn't happen. Then at the end, yeah, I didn't want to be in a situation where we had three goalies, and I wasn't going to be playing again. Fortunately, Jeff [Gorton, the assistant GM] was able to make a deal, and I respect him for doing that. He was in my corner for a long, long time, and I'll always appreciate that."

Once a member of the Leafs, Raycroft in short order signed a new deal, one worth an average $2 million over three seasons. It was the kind of money he sought here prior to last season, out of the lockout. But the Bruins were intent on leveraging his restricted free agency to their advantage in negotiations, and he didn't sign his one-year deal, worth $1.3 million, until the start of training camp -- shortly after Thomas was wooed back from Finland for a guaranteed one-way contract.

There is no way of knowing how the delay, and the attached acrimony, affected Raycroft's performance, but the results that soon followed were a deep discount over his rookie year. His new deal in hand with the Leafs, he promptly set about getting ready for a new start, and made a point of saying he hoped, when the deal was finished, the Leafs would be left feeling they had vastly underpaid for his services. Thus far, he has provided promise that he'll be a Filene's Basement-like find for the Blue and White.

"When people show that kind of confidence in you," mused Raycroft, "and when they do it right away, the way [GM John Ferguson] did, it's just so motivating. The way I think . . . you want to prove them right. I knew I wouldn't have the same year again. Deep down, I wouldn't let that happen. It just went so wrong [in Boston], and I had to step up. The deal was done early, and I got to Toronto at the end of August, got to training camp right on time. It's made such a huge difference."

Raycroft is not alone in providing the Leafs their Boston underpinnings to success. Fellow ex-Bruin Hal Gill, who left via free agency over the summer, has become a key component on the Toronto back line. The towering Gill, who signed a three-year deal worth an average $2.075 million per year, has 3 points in 17 games and typically logs some 22 minutes per night.

"Hal's been awesome, just outstanding," said Raycroft. "A big part of it, like myself I think, is that he feels comfortable. He knows exactly what they expect of him. He's out there for every penalty kill, and in the last minute of tight games, he's out there -- like I say, just great."

Late this morning, Raycroft will make his way to Causeway Street, and ultimately stop in the visiting locker room, just down the hall from where he once planned to be for years to come. A few bad goals on his part, and a load of bad management in the Boston front office, and voila, he now stands as the best promising young goalie in the Toronto system in some 14 years, dating to Felix Potvin's arrival in the early '90s.

"Should be interesting," Raycroft said of Causeway redux. "I'm looking forward to going out and doing it, getting this first one out of the way, so the next time it's just a matchup between two teams in the same division, you know? And, hey, it's not like I'm Ray Bourque, coming back for my first game after being here for 25 years. It was only a few years and I don't think it will be that emotional for me -- different but not emotional."

The job is fun again. Toronto, as a city, is hockey mad, a craze that perpetuates through the decades (think: Red Sox) despite the fact the Leafs have gone without a Stanley Cup since 1967. But amid all the hype and hope, the former Boston backstop has found a certain serenity.

"No. 1, it's fun, and it just feels normal to be playing every day again, and be in a rhythm," said Raycroft . "There's nothing going on outside to distract you -- just go to the rink, play hockey, have fun. There's no circus off the ice. Obviously, last year, from Day No. 1 there was trade talk every day, and on top of that I got injured and that didn't help matters. But there's just been none of that this year. Everyone's comfortable, and we're winning. Not much more than you can ask for, really."

In hindsight, said Raycroft, the true value of his time in Boston could be that failure followed success, and ultimately he figured a way back from the disappointment.

"I can't be so naive to think that I can't lose it again," he said. "But the way I look at last year, I realized that I could lose it, but I was able to get by it, stick with it, learn from it. Sometimes you never get a chance again after something like that. But I learned so much by going through it, and to bounce back gives you a ton of confidence that you'll be able to figure it out if something like that happens again. That's pretty tough to realize when you're losing. But when you're out of it, you feel, 'Hey, I can continue to do things, and I'll get good again.' "

The things you learn when you're on a roll.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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