Goalmouth Goliaths

A bevy of unlikely goaltenders rose up to put the bite on their opponents in the first round of the NHL playoffs
May 01, 1994

If you know that a Zamboni is not a dish served with pesto sauce, you also know that in order to reach the Stanley Cup finals, a team needs a hot goaltender. A week into the first round of this year's playoffs, the story of the postseason has been the emergence of a group of hot unknown goalies—rookies, Europeans, guys with nonexistent or less-than-illustrious playoff pasts, guys with nicknames like Archie, Bernie and the Blank Czech.

For perspective: The most shutouts ever in a four-round NHL postseason was 12, a record set two years ago. Through Sunday—with at least 10 games still to be played in the first round—there had already been seven shutouts. Some of the names of the responsible goalies were familiar. Felix (Le Chat) Potvin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who played more like un chien down the stretch this season, notched one of the shutouts, while Mike Richter of the New York Rangers had thrown a pair of bagels at the New York Islanders.

O.K., so you expect Potvin to show up in April, based on his 11 playoff wins as a rookie last year. But you also expect Richter to show up in April...on a Sports-Center highlight clip yielding a 65-foot goal, as he did two years ago against the Pittsburgh Penguins; that goal cost the Rangers the game, the series and, it was widely spoken and written, the Cup. By week's end Richter had expunged that memory and helped terminate the Islanders, stopping 88 of 91 shots in the series as the Rangers swept their hated rivals. Meanwhile, more accomplished playoff goalies were on the bench.

For example, what would the postseason be without Grant Fuhr, one of the greatest playoff goalies in hockey history? Well, in Buffalo this spring they're finding out. Fuhr has five Stanley Cup rings and, during Sabre games, a comfortable seat on the bench. He suffered a knee injury on Nov. 23 and was replaced by 29-year-old Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic, who proceeded to become the first NHL goalie in 20 years to allow an average of less than two goals a game. The Dominator, as Hasek came to be known, finished the season with a 30-20-6 record, a 1.95 goals-against average and seven shutouts, which earned him his second nickname, the Blank Czech. Still, he was snubbed by the All-Star Game selectors.

He even gets dissed at home. Last Friday night Hasek was torched for eight first-period goals in a game against the New Jersey Devils. With less than two minutes left in the period, he was put out of his misery: Using three clicks of a Super Nintendo button, Hasek's four-year-old son, Michael, gave his old man the hook. While his father was memorizing prepositional phrases at the kitchen table for his weekly English tutorial, Michael burbled, "Poor Dominik. Poor Dominik."

Hasek is used to struggling for respect. After leaving his native land shortly after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks, whose coach at the time, Mike Keenan, traded him two seasons later to Buffalo for underachieving forward Christian Ruuttu and a draft pick.

In Buffalo this season no one has faulted Sabre coach John Muckler for making Hasek his No. 1 guy. Still, it pained Muckler, who coached Fuhr for five years in Edmonton, to relegate the former winner of the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) to the role of million-dollar insurance policy. "It's been very difficult for me to take Grant out of the lineup," says Muckler. "Grant and I have been through a lot of wars together, and he's been very important to my own success. But Dominik is clearly the best goalie in the NHL at this time."

He may also be the most unorthodox. Hasek makes saves from some unfathomable positions—on his back, for instance, legs perpendicular to his supine body. From that position he is somehow able to locomote and protect the other side of the net—"Like he's break-dancing," says Sabre goalie coach Mitch Korn.

Hasek would dearly love to knock off Keenan's Rangers, but before he has a chance to do that, the Sabres will have to get past the Devils. Through Sunday, Buffalo and New Jersey were tied 2-2, and Hasek, who allowed only seven goals in the four games, was outstanding.

But so was his counterpart. New Jersey's best regular season in franchise history was attributable, in part, to the emergence of 6'1", 205-pound goalie Martin Brodeur, a rangy rookie in the Ken Dry-den mold. In the four games against Buffalo, Brodeur yielded just nine goals.

Like Dryden, Brodeur is unflappable. During stoppages of play at New Jersey's Brendan Byrne Arena, Brodeur, 21, can often be seen studying the replay on the JumboTron scoreboard screen. "It enables me to make adjustments right away, rather than later," he says. And he was unfazed during a power play late in the second period of Game 3 against Buffalo when Sabre winger Brad May, apparently desperate to get into the rookie's head, started waving his hand in front of Brodeur's mask. In return, Devil coach Jacques Lemaire said, "Maybe we'll get somebody with a mirror in the stands and reflect the light in Hasek's eyes."

It was only during the final fortnight of the regular season that Lemaire decided to go with Brodeur in the playoffs over the more experienced Chris Terreri. It was during roughly that same stretch that Dallas Star coach Bob Gainey decided his postseason goalie would be 28-year-old Darcy Wakaluk (playoff experience: 37 minutes) rather than Andy Moog (playoff experience: 6,006 minutes). But Moog had no quarrel with Gainey's decision, saying, "He was the only choice Bob could have made. He's made the big saves, and I have not."

Playing in his third full NHL season, the fiery Wakaluk had a 2.64 goals-against average and earned the respect of his teammates—who also learned to steer clear of him on the ice. "With Andy, you talk to him," says Dallas defenseman Craig Ludwig. "You ask him where he wants people positioned. You can't talk to Darcy at all. Can't go near him." Of course, even if a teammate did approach Wakaluk, the goalie might not know it. To maintain focus during a stoppage of play, Wakaluk shuts his eyes as he stands in the crease. "You look over and your goalie's eyes are closed," says Ludwig, "and you think, What's going on?"

Wakaluk vindicated Gainey by performing spectacularly in Dallas's sweep of the St. Louis Blues, playing all four games and allowing just 10 goals. It was a case of pupil surpassing teacher, because while growing up in Pincher Creek, Alberta, Wakaluk attended Moog's hockey camps.

Red Wing netminder Bob Essensa looked as if he needed a trip to hockey camp after Game 1 of the Detroit-San Jose Shark series. All season the knock on the Red Wings was their goaltending. General manager Bryan Murray's solution was to acquire Essensa from the Winnipeg Jets on March 8. The deal turned out to be an exploding cigar for Murray: Essensa won just four of the 13 games he started for the Red Wings, and in an opening loss to San Jose he allowed five goals. The game-winner, by Shark defenseman Vlastimil Kroupa, was an eminently stoppable shot that dribbled off Essensa's catching glove and into the net. Enter rookie Chris Osgood, a stoic, baby-faced 21-year-old of whom Murray says, "He doesn't look like the paperboy; he looks like the paperboy's little brother."

A team with a rookie goaltender has won the Stanley Cup seven times in NHL history, but since 1971, when Dryden carried the Montreal Canadiens to the Cup, it has happened only once, Patrick Roy doing it for the Habs in '86. But Red Wing coach Scotty Bowman insists Osgood's inexperience is not a concern, saying, "He's been pretty cool for us all year." So imperturbable is Osgood that teammate Ray Sheppard calls him Bernie—after the corpse in the movie Weekend at Bernie's. Says Sheppard, "He's got no pulse."

Osgood, who was 23-8-5 with a 2.86 goals-against average this season, calmly deflected every shot the Sharks took in Game 2, a 4-0 Detroit victory. And two nights later in a riotous teal cauldron of fans attending the first home playoff game in Shark history, Osgood played party pooper, allowing just two goals in a 3-2 Red Wing win.

The Sharks, on the other hand, had hoped to ride the coattails of their hot Latvian goaltender, Arturs (Archie) Irbe, who went 30-28-16 with a 2.84 goals-against average during the regular season. But after Irbe and the Sharks shocked Detroit in Game 1, the Red Wing brain trust devised a grand plan to cool the 27-year-old netminder. The strategy became apparent 90 seconds into Game 2, when 6'3", 225-pound Red Wing enforcer Bob Probert crashed the crease, leveling Irbe. It was the first of several runs Detroit players took at the diminutive Bait, who said gamely afterward, "Can you blame them?" As that suggests, Irbe enjoys a bit of contact. He allows that while growing up in Riga, he went through a stage as a street brawler. Earlier this season Jet musclehead Tie Domi visited Irbe in his crease. Domi informed his host that he intended to hurt him in the near future.

"You should do that," said Irbe to Domi, whose hockey gifts are limited to punching. "You should try to do something interesting."

In the third period of Game 2, 6'4", 220-pound Keith Primeau gave Irbe a hard shove in the back as play moved up ice. Minutes later, when the pair collided while racing for a loose puck, Irbe's blocker somehow found its way into Primeau's face. Primeau had to be helped off the ice and required four stitches.

Despite Primeau's little accident, Os-good and the Wings got the best of Irbe and the Sharks in Games 2 and 3 before the Sharks slipped by Detroit 4-3 on Saturday night, to even the series at two games apiece. Primeau got Detroit's final quality scoring chance in that game. With 1:49 to play, the towering center gathered a hard centering pass, settled the puck down and got off a tight shot on the doorstep of Irbe, who calmly smothered the puck with his left pad. "He's keeping them in games," said Primeau afterward, an edge in his voice.

You could say the same thing about a lot of goalies in these playoffs, even if you had hardly heard of most of them until last week.

PHOTOROBERT BECKWhile the Rangers' Richter (above) stopped the Isles, Irbe (opposite, 32) was smoking in San Jose. PHOTOJOHN GIAMUNDO/BENNETT STUDIOS[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSAL TIELEMANSThings were looking up in the Devil-Sabre series for both Brodeur (above) and Hasek (below). PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOTime and again, surprise starter Wakaluk saved the day as the Stars polished off the Blues.