TORONTO - Kevin Poulin has viewed himself as a No. 1 goaltender, even when he wasn't one.

That should help him now that the 23-year-old is the man in the Islanders' net. Evgeni Nabokov is on injured reserve with a groin injury, so Poulin, who had started four of the previous five games before Nabokov started and was injured Saturday, has his shot to change the future of the Islanders in goal.

"You want to earn your starts," Poulin told Newsday Monday, before his likely start Tuesday night against the Maple Leafs. "The way I played before dictated how much I played, so that's how I still think."

Poulin came into the season perhaps not thinking much about the future. After the end of his entry-level deal this past summer, he signed a one-year, two-way contract for just $577,500 -- not the sort of deal given out to a player the organization views as a big piece of the puzzle.

But Poulin has played better than Nabokov when both were healthy and did, as Poulin said, earn more time -- the Islanders have allowed two goals or fewer just three times in the past 14 games, and Poulin was in net for all three.

"When you play good, you feel confident," Poulin said. "Hockey is a very mental sport, and for goalies, it's more mental than for the other players, I think. It's all about confidence and focus."

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Poulin had a somewhat similar opportunity as a rather unheralded 20-year-old, during a 2010-11 season in which the Islanders used six goaltenders. With Dwayne Roloson traded to the Lightning and everyone else injured, Poulin had a chance to carry a struggling team over the final two months of the season.

But a dislocated kneecap, suffered in warm-ups, ended that dream fast.

"It took about a year after the surgery before I felt 100 percent in terms of flexibility and strength," said Poulin, who worked then and still works with former Islanders and Rangers strength coach Scott Livingston.

Now he's got a chance, but a much bigger one: This Islanders team is still very much involved in the playoff picture, with three-quarters of the season still to come. The short-term, small-salary deal could become something bigger and better if Poulin can give the Islanders what they need.

"This is the team that drafted me, that gave me a chance," he said. "I want to be with this team, be successful and accomplish everything on Long Island. Nowhere else."