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Toivonen a stand-up goaltender

Bruin considered demotion beneficial

WILMINGTON -- For the last three weeks, Hannu Toivonen has forsaken his $532,000 NHL salary and all its perks -- charter planes, first-class hotels -- for the smaller paychecks and weary bus travel of the AHL.

When he was assigned to the Providence Bruins Nov. 7, everybody with the team knew it was the right move for the man once projected as Boston's No. 1 goalie.

General manager Peter Chiarelli gave the go-ahead to Toivonen's demotion. Coach Dave Lewis figured Toivonen needed some AHL action. Goalie coach Bob Essensa knew his pupil could use some mental housecleaning.

But most important, Toivonen himself realized he didn't deserve to be in the NHL.

"It was the right thing to do," said Toivonen, recalled to Boston Sunday, after his first practice back with the big club yesterday. "I wasn't playing well. It's as simple as that. No excuses -- I just wasn't good enough. That's the bottom line. I had to get better."

It looked as though things couldn't get worse after Toivonen's last NHL start, Nov. 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. On that day, Toivonen fell victim to a five-goal flameout -- though the Bruins, with Tim Thomas in the crease for the third period, scored a 6-5 win over the Lightning. Toivonen was sent to Providence three days later.

All the bugaboos that were creeping into Toivonen's game took center stage against Tampa Bay: poor positioning, shoddy rebound control, relying too much on his athleticism.

Bigger than that, however, was the crumbling of his cerebral approach to the game.

"It was pretty much all mental stuff and how you approach things," said Toivonen.

In today's NHL, Lewis couldn't afford to have two so-so goalies -- Thomas had yet to establish the consistency he's shown recently. In fact, Lewis has seen proof of that on the other side of the ice.

In the third game of the season, the Bruins faced off against a red-hot Kari Lehtonen in a 4-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers. During their next visit to Atlanta, Lehtonen had cooled off, prompting Thrashers coach Bob Hartley to go with Johan Hedberg against the Bruins.

The benefits of having two confident puckstoppers are evident around the league. In Anaheim, Jean- Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov suffered recent injuries. In San Jose, Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov have shared the workload. To the north, Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer have given Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau two solid options.

With several exceptions -- Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur -- NHL teams have needed two goalies to log significant minutes.

"It's the nature of the league now," said Essensa. "Scoring chances are up with the new rules they've instituted. Combine that with better power plays and restricting the amount of clutching and grabbing our defensemen are able to do. Consequently, goalies are going to see not only more shots, but more quality shots. To carry your game at a high level over the course of an 82-game season isn't always an easy thing."

So with his bosses desperate to see improvement, Toivonen spent the last three weeks in Providence, working with coach Scott Gordon (a former goaltender) to get his head straightened out and his technique back to form.

The organization's plan was to get Toivonen significant AHL action. But on Nov. 11, during the third period of a game against the Worcester Sharks at the DCU Center, Toivonen's left skate caught a rut next to the post, causing him to sprain his ankle.

"It was disappointing to get hurt," said Toivonen, whose 2005-06 season was cut short by a right ankle sprain. "Fortunately it wasn't that bad. I was a little scared in the beginning when it actually happened. It could have been worse. Fortunately that wasn't the case."

Toivonen didn't play any of the three games the following weekend. But the 22-year-old returned to the crease this past weekend, recording three losses. The results weren't there (1-4-0, 3.33 goals-against average, .875 save percentage), but Toivonen said he feels better now than when he first went to Providence.

"I know myself better as a person and as a goaltender than I did a couple weeks ago," Toivonen said. "I think it made me stronger as a person and a goaltender."

That's because for once in his career, instead of seeing himself as a future star, Toivonen recognized that he was nowhere close to being a game-saving goalie. The Bruins don't know whether the AHL tuneup was the breather the Finnish netminder needed -- Thomas will start tonight against the Leafs, although Lewis said he'd like to play Toivonen sooner rather than later -- but one thing that club officials like is the attitude Toivonen took with him to Providence.

From every report, he didn't pout. He didn't snap his sticks in frustration. He didn't go the woe-is-me approach of a goalie playing behind a defense still learning its system.

"My skills are there," Toivonen said. "I know that I'm a [darn] good goalie."

The Bruins are down to six healthy defensemen, as they waived Nathan Dempsey yesterday and Lewis announced that Jason York has a lower-body injury and will not play tonight. If Dempsey clears waivers by today's noon deadline, he will most likely be assigned to Providence. Lewis said York's injury is not related to his right knee, which was recently repaired via arthroscopic surgery . . . Toronto agitator Darcy Tucker said, if necessary, he's ready for a rematch tonight against Paul Mara, who landed several punches during a first-period fight Saturday. Mara gave the green light, too. "If he's looking for trouble," said Mara. "What happens, happens. We'll see." Mara didn't buy Tucker's statement that he was weary at the end of a long shift. "It's part of the game," Mara said. "There has to a sense of accountability out there. He hit [Zdeno Chara] and [Marc] Savard. It doesn't matter if you're Darcy Tucker or Jaromir Jagr." . . . Goalie Brian Finley, who injured his groin last week against the Penguins, skated toward the end of practice. Finley didn't push himself. He hopes to return in a week. Finley said an MRI didn't show any damage . . . The Bruins are participating in a toys for kids benefit, with each player donating at least $200. The cash was being collected by fashion maven P.J. Axelsson, who was referred to as a supermodel, Zoolander, and a less favorable description on a board in the club's dressing room.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at FShinzawa@globe.com.

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