It wasn't long ago that goalies were the whipping boys for all that ailed the National Hockey League. Clad in often comically-oversized equipment, they'd had it especially good for especially long, and their feast was everyone else's famine.
At least that's how the thinking went back then. These days, though, you'd have a much tougher time making the same argument. In fact, a sizeable number of less-sizeable goalies are finding the second year of the post-lockout era far tougher than the first.
Before we go any further, let's be clear: yes, the season is only a week old, but we're going to reference stats over the next few paragraphs anyway. We've already caught flak from some readers for citing the horrendous save percentages of Carolina's Cam Ward (.887) and Tomas Vokoun (.803), but the numbers game is more important than ever.
That's because in the evened-out NHL, there is no more wiggle room in the schedule for teams and players to get their groove back. You can't coast through a single week, let alone longer, without seriously risking a playoff berth or home-ice advantage once you're in the playoffs.
And that explains why teams have gone with whatever (and whomever) works in net so far. To paraphrase the philosophers from Depeche Mode, Â“Every game counts in large amountsÂ”. As a result, the pressure to win Â– now, dammit! Â– is there for all teams, all season, like never before.
Take the Canadiens, for example. Cristobal Huet, all but anointed as Montreal's No. 1 goalie this summer, allowed four goals on 37 shots during his team's season-opening loss to Buffalo. David Aebischer, the practically forgotten backup, got himself remembered by making three more saves on 38 Maple Leafs shots in Game 2 of the year, which Montreal won 3-2 in a shootout.
Suddenly, Aebischer is starting and winning Game 3, and Huet almost assuredly will sit out his third in a row when the Habs host their division rivals from Ottawa Saturday. So much for the Cristobal Coronation.
In Montreal, as in many NHL markets, little has gone as advertised between the pipes.
In Toronto, the Maple Leafs are continuing to carry two backup goalies, just in case one of them gets sick of the Maple Leafs continuing to carry two backup goalies. On Long Island, Rick Â“The Human AmortizationÂ” DiPietro is at the very bottom of the league's goalie ratings, with a 0-3 record, 4.53 goals-against average and .879 save percentage.
The Hurricanes' Ward, much like his team, hasn't won a game yet. Martin Gerber already is feeling the heat for Ottawa's sluggish start. Tim Thomas and Ed Belfour were mitigated and unmitigated disasters respectively in their first games for Boston and Florida and Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin (5.59 GAA, .828 save percentage) wasn't far behind.
Miikka Kiprusoff has been merely ordinary for Calgary. Dan Cloutier was anything but consistent in his first two starts for Los Angeles. Phoenix's Curtis Joseph got ripped for seven goals in two periods against Detroit. On and on it goes.
Of course, not every NHL goalie has a sob story to tell this season. Kari Lehtonen is droppin' it like it's white-hot in Atlanta; duos in San Jose (Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov), Anaheim (Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov) and Buffalo (Ryan Miller and Martin Biron) have powered their teams to undefeated starts; and Pascal Leclaire has been solid and then some for Columbus.
But each one of those situations can change quicker than Patrik Elias on a sugar high. Lehtonen was a major disappointment for much of last season; Biron requested a trade long ago; there's no guarantee either of the California teams will be able to please each of their platoon's parties for the entire season; and nobody knows if or when Leclaire goes from glass slipper to pumpkin.
To paraphrase the philosophers from Three 6 Mafia, Â“It's hard out there for a goalie.Â”
Fat pads or no fat pads, that's something that won't change for men who decided standing in front of blazing hardened rubber is a good way to make a living.
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