They pointed a television camera at him and asked about the
secrets of his butterfly technique, as if his name were Patrick
Roy and not Patrick Lalime. They asked him if he had any
hobbies. They even asked him to name his favorite movie, as if
he were the skinny one, Siskel. He was amazed: cameras,
questions. In his 22 years no one had much cared about his take
on goaltending, his taste in cinema or, for that matter,
anything else about him. Now this. Somebody wrote that Lalime,
the Penguins' rookie netminder, was fast becoming a folk hero in
Pittsburgh. When your world changes in three weeks, you try not
to change with it. Stay humble, suppress the urge to say, "Geez,
can you believe I'm playing with Mario?" Stick up for Lemieux
after a stick-swinging New York Islander attempts to chop him
into filet mignon, and answer the questions.
"I told them Slap Shot," Lalime says, shrugging. "I didn't know
what else to say." For a goalie who has tasted the Slap Shot
life, the choice was a no-brainer. Lalime's success, on the
other hand, is not so easy to figure. When he played junior
hockey in Quebec, his team once demoted him two levels. Last
season he wasn't even a first-stringer in the International
Hockey League. It looked as if the only way Lalime was going to
get his name in the record books was with a felt-tip pen.
But after a 3-3 tie in Ottawa last Saturday, Lalime's 11-0-2
record with the Penguins trailed only Ken Dryden's 12-0-2 with
the Montreal Canadiens in 1971 and Ross Brooks's 11-0-3 with the
Boston Bruins in '72 for the best start by a rookie goaltender
since the 1967 NHL expansion. Sure, Lalime has been whipping
tomato cans--only three of his 13 games were against teams with
winning records--but at week's end he also led the league in
goals-against average (2.02) and save percentage (.933), and
Pittsburgh was on top of the Northeast Division.
Lalime's game doesn't quite reflect his numbers--he gives up
long rebounds and seems a whisker slow moving post to post--but
he doesn't flop on shots from sharp angles, he has a knack for
picking up screened shots, and he is lucky enough to play for
Pittsburgh. Through Sunday the Penguins were 17-2-4 since Nov.
22, when coach Ed Johnston created the Bottom Line of Lemieux,
Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, who combined for 54 goals and 68
assists in those 23 games. But Lalime, who was called up on Nov.
14, has done more than hop on for the ride. He has started to
make a name for himself, even if no one can pronounce it.
Johnston, the Casey Stengel of his sport, calls his goalie
La-lime (rhymes with sublime). Most everyone else in Pittsburgh
calls him La-leem, which would be close if he were a
beret-wearin', baguette-gnawin' kind of guy, which he isn't.
Lalime hails from St. Bonaventure (pop. 1,140), a farming
community about 71 miles northeast of Montreal where the summers
are short and the vowels are shorter. He pronounces his name
La-limb, which is what the Penguins were out on after starting
goaltender Tom Barrasso was sidelined with a recurring shoulder
problem on Nov. 2 and then his backup, Ken Wregget, pulled his
left hamstring on Dec. 26. Wregget is still nursing his injury,
and Barrasso, who underwent shoulder surgery on Jan. 3, is so
far out of the picture that photos of him have vanished from the
lobby of the Penguins' practice rink.
Pittsburgh had such a modest opinion of Lalime, who started the
season with the team's IHL affiliate in Cleveland, that it
splurged on another goalie, Craig Hillier, in the first round of
the 1996 draft. "The way we saw it," Johnston says of Hillier,
who is playing for the Ottawa 67s in the Ontario Hockey League,
"he would have a couple of more years in juniors and then be
ready to replace Tommy or Kenny." The Penguins had a line of
succession as clear as the House of Windsor's until life got in
Wregget might be the goalie for the playoffs--"Kenny's still the
Man," Lalime says--but Lalime is the goalie of the present. Who
knew? The only thing unique about him--Lalime was just another
link in the daisy chain of butterfly-style goalies to come out
of Quebec--was this: Of all the players eligible for the 1993
draft, he was the one who wrote his number next to his name on
the NHL player information forms.
The number then was 33, in honor of Roy, a minor god in
Montreal. Lalime's bedroom was Saint Patrick's cathedral. He had
the poster, the red-white-and-blue goalie pads, everything. At
hockey school when he was 16, Lalime even hooked up with the
same instructor Roy had had, Francois Allaire, the former
Canadiens goaltending coach who still talks to Lalime at least
once a week. "He's the type of kid," says Allaire, now a
goaltending consultant, "who never got anything for free."
Except advice. Lalime heard it from coaches who told him to
stack his pads when making a save and to abandon the butterfly,
and from fans who told him to abandon hockey altogether. "This
was tough on my parents, sitting in the stands and hearing
people call me pourri [trash]," Lalime says. "No one ever told
me I'd be great, except them."
The Penguins drafted him in the sixth round and a year later
brought him to training camp, but they didn't offer him a
contract. So, armed with a dream and a French-English
dictionary, the then unilingual Lalime struck out for that
hockey mecca, Norfolk, Va., home of the Hampton Roads Admirals
of the East Coast Hockey League, and the tender ministering of
coach John Brophy. Brophy, an old Slap Shot-like brawler in his
playing days, would bring his dog to practice and caution Lalime
to stay away from it because the animal might mistake him for a
bone and chew on him. (Lalime is 6'2", weighs 165 pounds and has
a chest that borders on the concave.) Of course, the goalie was
having his own culinary dilemma. His plat du jour in Virginia
was the popular "same thing." Whatever a teammate ordered,
Lalime would say, "Same thing"--until he wound up with fiery
Italian sausage in his pasta.
Lalime graduated to the IHL halfway through that 1994-95 season,
served an 18-month apprenticeship in Cleveland and even spent a
few weeks with Pittsburgh when Barrasso was injured. He didn't
play then, but after working with Allaire last summer, he
arrived at Pittsburgh's training camp a sounder, more confident
goalie. He no longer needlessly challenged shooters. He kept his
arms closer to his side, so shots couldn't slip under them.
Lalime was recalled from Cleveland after Barrasso's shoulder
started bothering him, but general manager Craig Patrick began
trolling the market for a goalie with NHL experience in case
something happened to Wregget. Lalime didn't seem like anything
more than a stopgap until Wregget popped his hamstring and the
rookie had to take over.
"Maybe it was a blessing in disguise," Johnston says. "When
Patrick got back there, we started to tighten up defensively."
Even counting the Islanders' 50-shot deluge on Jan.
7--Pittsburgh was outshot 20 to 1 yet escaped the first period
down only 1-0 and won 5-3--the Penguins have given up an average
of only 30 shots a game with Lalime in goal, compared to 35 with
Wregget or Barrasso. "Fifty shots," a smiling Lemieux says, "was
getting back to normal."
Things turned abnormal three nights later in a rematch against
the Islanders in Pittsburgh, when Lemieux and Richard Pilon
played Zorro with their sticks. Pilon, who received a two-game
suspension for intent to injure Lemieux, was skating toward the
exit when Lalime took a few menacing strides toward him. "I was
just yelling, 'Nice job, you bleeping dummy,'" Lalime reports.
"You can't do that to a guy like Mario." Remember, Slap Shot is
Lalime's favorite movie. If the unbeaten streak hits 20, we'll
go back and find out what he eats for breakfast.