Friday December 14th, 2007

If a coach is only as good as his goaltending, you can understand why so many bench bosses have been gulping Tums and stocking up on Grecian Formula lately. It's been an ugly couple of weeks for starting NHL netminders, with half a dozen munching popcorn in the pressbox rather than stopping pucks on the ice.

Consider:

* Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, sidelined for up to two months by an ankle sprain.

* Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, felled by a rib injury, is out for an undetermined period.

* St. Louis' Manny Legace just returned from knee woes.

* Boston's Tim Thomas suffered a lower-body injury, while Manny Fernandez was lost for the season after knee surgery.

* Los Angeles lost Jason LaBarbera to a rib injury.

* Montreal's Cristobal Huet has missed five starts and counting with a groin pull.

In some cases, teams are willing to ride it out and hope for the best.Others might not have that luxury.

In Pittsburgh, the Pens planned to take their chances with Dany Sabourin and third-string spare Ty Conklin during Fleury's absence. But after two games, both losses, that plan may be changing.

Although Fleury, the first overall draft pick in 2003, had picked up his play of late, Sabourin's been the more consistent of the two through the early going. There was some thought the he could handle the transition to starter in the wake of Fleury's injury, but after watching Sabourin melt down against the Flyers on Tuesday, and fail to support a solid effort by his teammates on Thursday night against Ottawa, that plan may have been a bit ambitious. Little wonder that rumors are swirling that the Pens will turn to 40-year-old Curtis Joseph to shore up their situation and salvage their playoff aspirations.

Cujo, last spotted battling bravely behind a porous defense in Phoenix, is rumored to be part of the Canadian contingent headed to Switzerland next week for the Spengler Cup tournament. He might have to settle for Swiss Chalet the restaurant chain instead of Swiss Alps the mountain chain if the Pens come calling. A free agent, Joseph won't cost them an asset -- an important factor for a team that's young and still rebuilding -- and he has a better track record than Toronto's Andrew Raycroft or the unproven Dan Ellis of Nashville, two names that are being floated as potential trade targets.

Given the Penguins' struggle to match last season's scoring pace, and the disastrous loss of forward Maxime Talbot -- don't underrate the impact of his absence on the team's fortunes -- they can't wait long for better goaltending if they want to stay in the playoff hunt. If the answer's not Joseph, it's almost certain to be someone other than Sabourin.

In Vancouver, the Canucks are turning to St. Louis castoff Curtis Sanford (he of the 3.19 GAA and .888 save percentage in 2006-07) and rookie Drew McIntyre while Luongo is sidelined. I doubt that combo has coach Alain Vigneault sleeping soundly.

Fact is, there's no single player more responsible for his team's success than Luongo. When he struggled to find his game in October, Vancouver floundered, going 5-7. When he got his game back on track in November -- posting a stingy 1.57 GAA and a stout .940 save percentage -- the Canucks went on an 8-2-2 tear. With local wags calling it the best month of goaltending ever in Vancouver, it's obvious that there's no replacing Sweet Bobby Lu.

Luongo's status is day-to-day, but after watching an average performance by Sanford that was made to look worse by the foibles of his defenseman on Thursday night in San Jose, Bobby Lu may try to rush back into the lineup, perhaps as soon as next week's playoff reunion against Dallas.

In Boston, the Bruins learned on Wednesday that they're likely to be without Fernandez for the rest of the season. At this point, that qualifies as good news. The play of the former Minnesota stopper, acquired last summer to be the team's No. 1, brought to mind the regrettable Jeff Hackett in four wonky starts before he was sidelined by a recurring knee problem.

Tim Thomas (league-leading .936 save percentage) has emerged as a reliable option in Fernandez' absence, and while Thomas has been sidelined since Dec. 5 by an unspecified lower body injury, he looks capable of hauling a good portion of the mail the rest of the way. Down to third-stringer Tuukka Rask, the Bruins plucked Alex Auld off the scrap heap and he's gone 3-1 since joining them from Phoenix. The third-year veteran, who also had cups of coffee in the NHL from 2001-04, was banished to San Antonio of the AHL after the Coyotes acquired Ilya Bryzgalov. Auld looks surprisingly competent playing behind a Bruins squad that thinks defense first, second and third.

The capable play they've gotten from the Thomas-Auld duo suggests the Bruins will use the cap space cleared by putting Fernandez on long-term injured reserve to bring in something other than a netminder. Anaheim's Mathieu Schneider could be an option.

In Montreal, the Habs are hoping that Huet can return Saturday for a marquee matchup against the Leafs on Hockey Night In Canada. That may be a bit ambitious for his sore groin, and given his spotty history against Toronto, another couple days of rest might be best for all concerned. Backup Carey Price has looked more like a rookie than the franchise savior while thrust into the starter's role, but he improved his record to 2-2-1 as the No. 1 after an impressive 29-save performance against the Flyers on Thursday night. Price is also 2-0 against the Leafs, stopping 80 of 86 shots he's faced, so it wouldn't be a surprise if coach Guy Carbonneau gave him one more chance before turning the reins back over to Huet.

In St. Louis, Legace has confirmed that he'll need surgery after the season to repair cartilage loss in his right knee, but he was back in net Thursday night after missing five games. He looked sharp in a 1-0 loss to the Panthers, but given his history -- his 2006-07 season also was curtailed by knee problems --the Blues are one misstep away from relying on the uneven Hannu Toivonen to carry the load. That's not an option that'll keep the sixth-place Blues in playoff contention.

As tenuous as that situation seems, it's better than the goalie curse that haunts Los Angeles. Injuries forced the Kings to employ five of them last season, and they've almost matched that total already, calling on rookies Jonathan Bernier and Jonathan Quick while LaBarbera and J.S. Aubin shuffled on and off the IR. The two Jonathans have been consistent, at least -- consistently bad -- and that has the Kings in last place in the Western Conference. GM Dean Lombardi did a solid job rebuilding the battered blueline over the summer, but he failed to adequately address the team's most pressing need: a reliable goaler. Though LaBarbera could return in the next week to 10 days, he's not the answer. The Pens might have some competition for Cujo's services.

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