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Top stoppers like action, prefer wins

Tomas Vokoun has a .926 save percentage, but only an 8-6-0 record this season.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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Tomas Vokoun has a .926 save percentage, but only an 8-6-0 record this season. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Take 10 steps in any touristy part of Thailand and you’ll quickly discover somebody not from that country wearing a T-shirt that reads, “same same, but different.” It’s a reference to how local vendors try to peddle goods to visitors by assuring them a certain item is exactly what they’re looking for, despite the trepidation of potential buyers. Looking for a pair of leather boots, but being shown a set of high-top Chuck Taylors? Don’t worry, they’ll say, “same same, but different.” Get it?

You have to wonder if that “same same” sentiment perfectly encapsulates how Jean-Sebastien Giguere felt tending goal in Anaheim in 2003 and 2007. And if, in those two seasons, he came to perfectly understand the distinction between being a goalie who’s swatting shots away left, right and center, versus filling the role Ken Dryden made famous in the late 1970s by fighting through cold feet to make a big third-period save after being stationary for two thirds of the game.

In ’03, Giguere was asked to make an average of 34.1 saves in 15 playoffs wins for the Mighty Ducks, which, of course, is one victory short of the magic championship number. Because he was able to do that playing behind a defense corps that featured Keith Carney, Sandis Ozolinsh and Ruslan Salei at the top, Giguere became one of five players in history to be named playoff MVP without wining the Cup. Four years later, Anaheim was less mighty in name only. With Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin anchoring the blueline, ‘Jiggy’ - with a little help from Ilya Bryzgalov in the early rounds - led the Ducks to the Cup by turning aside 22.3 shots per game in his 13 wins.

A good portion of the workforce would be happy to arrive at a job where little is asked of them each morning, but that’s not necessarily true of goalies because it’s far easier to stay sharp when you’re seeing lots of shots versus standing still for long stretches at a time. Being asked to make a few timely saves also indicates a puckstopper is on a strong club, meaning, in some ways, the stakes are often higher than they are for a guy who’s fighting just to make his team look respectable.
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“It’s a different kind of challenge,” Giguere said of playing on a team where the goalie is expected to stand tall at big moments interspersed throughout the contest. “In the long run, it’s better because if you find a way to deal with it you’ll be a lot more rested and you have a better chance to win at the end of the game, because that means you’ve out-shot the other team most of the time.”

Giguere isn’t the first goalie to transition from show-stopping frontman to beat-keeping drummer. The aforementioned Dryden basically won the Canadiens the Cup in 1971 before claiming five more in a much different role.

Billy Smith has said he used to think Dryden was living the Life of Riley with the Habs when Smith was watching from afar and getting peppered nightly as a member of the lowly Islanders. Then his team turned a massive corner and Smith came to understand the challenges Dryden faced while being expected to make that handful of pivotal saves-per-game a dynasty team asks of its goalie.

Kelly Hrudey went to Long Island near the end of Smith’s great tenure there and said ‘Battlin’ Billy’ got in gear long before the game ever started, a trait crucial to succeeding in the less-is-more model.

“His preparation was second to none,” said Hrudey, the former NHL-goalie-turned-analyst for Hockey Night in Canada. “He was strong mentally, he was in every game. You never had to worry about him being unprepared. So, for me, I was learning from the master, really, about that part of the game.”

But not every teammate Hrudey played alongside soaked things up at the same rate. So much of being ready for that sudden chance in the slot is about doing your homework as a goalie; knowing a shooter’s tendency, understanding what opponents like to do with the puck.

Players at other positions, though, can get by on far less.

“With all due respect to the skaters, some of the more ordinary ones put very little preparation into their game,” Hrudey said. “All the great ones I ever played with, their preparation was similar to a top goaltender. But it never ceased to amaze me when there would be guys more in the position of a role player and they might even ask something like, after the first period, ‘Who’s playing goal for the other team?’ I’m serious. It used to drive me crazy thinking, ‘That’s how much preparation you’ve put into this so far?’ ”

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The metamorphosis Giguere and others have undergone isn’t one every goalie can successfully make. Curtis Joseph was the primary reason teams in St. Louis, Edmonton and Toronto consistently advanced a round or two in the playoffs, yet two years with a top-flight outfit in Detroit landed him a 4-8 playoff record and just one series victory. (In fairness to ‘Cujo,’ his first year as a Wing was 2003, when the team was stunned by Giguere and the Ducks.) When Roberto Luongo was single-handedly keeping Florida afloat year after year, it was assumed any reasonably competent team that traded for him was in for a one-way ticket to the Promised Land. Ask Vancouver Canucks fans how that’s worked out.

For his part, Hrudey doesn’t believe either of those goalies were or are incapable of adjusting. It’s just a matter of circumstance and making your game malleable to fit the new reality.

“I think everybody can be conditioned,” he said. “It’s difficult and you’ll have major growing pains, but I’ve seen a lot of guys be in both situations and be able to adapt.”

Which brings us to another Florida savior. Tomas Vokoun was traded to the Panthers in the summer of 2007. During his first year there, the Cats surrendered an average of 33.6 shots per game, the second-highest total in the league. The past two years, Florida has given up the most average shots per game, 34.7 in 2008-09 and 34.1 last season. Things were a little more manageable early this campaign with the Panthers holding teams to 27.6 shots each contest though seven games, but it still begs the question about how Vokoun will fare if he signs with a contender as an unrestricted free agent this summer, or is dealt to one before the Feb. 28 trade deadline, as some believe he will be.

Craig Anderson saw more rubber than any other NHL goalie last year, staring down 2,233 pucks while leading the Colorado Avalanche to a surprise playoff berth. As a former Panther, he witnessed first-hand what Vokoun does in the blue paint.

“Playing in Florida, we didn’t have many nights where we gave up 20 or less shots, I mean it just didn’t happen,” said Anderson, also a potential UFA next summer. “He’s able to make that game-breaking save at any time. He’s the reason Florida has had an opportunity to be where they’ve been the last couple years, being on the borderline of being a playoff team. Without him they’re definitely bottom of the basement every time.”

Vokoun acknowledged getting constant action helps him stay in the groove, but isn’t concerned with alternative scenarios.

“Obviously it’s better for a goalie, just like everybody, to be part of the play,” he said. “You get some shots, it keeps you in the game. You don’t have to sit there and wait 10 minutes for a shot, then have to stop it. But some nights you get 15 shots, some nights you get 45. You just have to be able to deal with both.”

Anderson doesn’t see his old teammate having any trouble with that.

“I think he’s got the leadership and maturity that if he did go to a team that only gave up 20 shots, he’d thrive on that also,” he said. “He’s just a top-tier goaltender who could do pretty much anything asked of him.”

Some are quick to point out that scoring chances, not just total pucks flung on goal, are the true barometer of how difficult a goalie’s job is. Hrudey isn’t convinced.

“I don’t know if I buy that as much as some other people,” he said. “The way the guys shoot the puck today, I don’t see a lot of shots on goal that are just throwaways. There are definitely some, but everybody shoots the puck hard. I don’t care where you’re shooting from, a hard shot is still a hard shot.”

That’s a bottom-line statement any goalie can relate to. Henrik Lundqvist, the always-busy masked man for the Rangers, made another when he summed up his feelings on the ideal working conditions.

“I like a lot of action, but it comes down to winning,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s 60 shots or 10 shots, as long as you’re winning, I feel great.”

This article first appeared in the Nov. 15 edition of The Hockey News magazine.

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