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Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Daily Debate: Fate of the high-flying Panthers and slumping Leafs

By Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun

For better or for worse, the value of a good goalie cannot be underestimated. Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun look at which teams are flourishing and foundering because of their netminders.

Custance: Hey, Pierre, hope Toronto is treating you well despite another loss by the Maple Leafs, who are slowly starting to negate their fantastic start. They followed Saturday's ugly 7-0 loss to the Bruins with a 5-1 loss at home Tuesday night to the Panthers.

Before we get to the Leafs, let me say this about the Panthers: I'm starting to wonder whether Scott Burnside was right all along. Has Dale Tallon already turned this group into a playoff team? The Panthers haven't lost in regulation since Oct. 27 and have earned at least one point in seven of their past eight games. I chatted with Tallon on Monday night and could tell he was pleased with the way his team is playing. He enjoys its exciting brand of hockey. I wanted some insight on his decision to send talented rookie goalie Jacob Markstrom to the AHL (and not just because I had him in our hockey pool), and he expressed his faith in the current goaltending duo.

"Goaltending has not been an issue for us," Tallon said. "Jose [Theodore] has been good. [Scott Clemmensen] is a real pro. We're thinking big picture."

Theodore rewarded that faith with a strong, 38-save performance Tuesday night in Toronto. On the other side of the ice, the goaltending wasn't so strong for the Leafs. Toronto still has 19 points, good for the No. 2 spot in the East, but hasn't played well in November the past few years. So if you had to pick one -- who makes the playoffs this season, Florida or Toronto?

LeBrun: Well, I picked neither to make it in September, so why bother changing my mind now, right? The Panthers certainly have been impressive, however. One of the reasons I thought they wouldn’t make it is that when a team brings in so many new faces, the adjustment period and the search for chemistry usually takes a long time. But I chatted with Panthers blueliner Brian Campbell last month, and he was amazed by how they all came together quickly and credited head coach Kevin Dineen for the way he handled camp and practices for that. The Leafs? They miss James Reimer a lot. Jonas Gustavsson’s 3.78 goals-against average is ranked dead last among goalies who qualify among the statistical leaders. Ouch. Ben Scrivens was terrific in Columbus in his NHL debut last week but also has struggled since then. Until Reimer returns, the Leafs are in big trouble.

Custance: I agree. You'd hate to see goaltending sink this franchise again, but you're right: The Leafs need Reimer in the lineup. The good news for Leafs fans is that there are plenty of veteran goaltending options on the market if Brian Burke should wake up one day and decide he needs to make a changes, but I'm sure that depends on how close Reimer is to playing. Goaltending is an unpredictable thing, eh? Just look at Tuesday night's games. We saw Ryan Miller allow five goals in Buffalo's win over Winnipeg, and some Sabres fans even gave him the Bronx cheer after an easy save. To his credit, though, I do like how Miller battled through that game after allowing three first-period goals. Then in Montreal, Nikolai Khabibulin was outstanding again in stopping 28 of 29 shots against the Canadiens. He leads all starting goalies with a 0.98 goals-against this season and is battling Josh Harding for the league's best save percentage. He earned his seventh win of the season after winning just 10 all of last season. What an incredible story he's turning out to be for the Oilers.

LeBrun: There’s an interesting career pattern when it comes to Khabibulin. When he arrived in Tampa Bay in 2001, the team was a cellar dweller and missed the playoffs again in his first full season. But it rose from the ashes and, of course, won the Cup in 2004. When he went to the Blackhawks in 2005-06, they were bottom-feeders. In his last season there, he helped backstop the young, rebuilding team to the Western Conference finals. Had he signed a five-year deal instead of a four-year deal, he likely would have another Cup ring. Now he's in Edmonton with the Oilers, who have been bottom-feeders for a few years but are now on the rise with Khabibulin again in net. Just a coincidence? Or a goalie who thrives in that setting?

Custance: Great question. So by that math, the Oilers should be playing in at least the conference finals this season, right? There are certainly some comparisons to be made between this Oilers team and the Blackhawks squad that Khabibulin helped guide to a pair of playoff series wins. Both bottomed out and accumulated young talent like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The only issue with Edmonton: Who is the Oilers' Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook? I like the effort coming from Americans Tom Gilbert and Corey Potter, but it's a lot to ask for it to continue all season. We said this current six-game road trip would be a great test to see whether the Oilers are legitimate, and they're 2-1 halfway through it. They'll finish up with the Bruins, Red Wings and Blackhawks, though, so it doesn't get any easier.

LeBrun: The Oilers were outplayed for long stretches Tuesday night in Montreal, but the Bulin Wall bailed them out. If Edmonton can remain in the playoff mix come the Feb. 27 trade deadline, my sense is that the Oilers will try to beef up that blue line. Lots of hockey to be played between now and then, my friend.

Until we speak next, Mr. Custance.